Sunday 26 June 2022

Belgian Ballsup: But Dealer Insists on His Money


Provenance matters. A dealer bought a bargain at a Belgian government sale, did not know or ask where item was from and why it was on the market at all.

And now, British police are keeping a stolen statue worth millions of dollars in their custody as a dispute rages between a Belgian antique dealer and a Nigerian museum (Barnaby Phillips, Nigerian Ife head: Why UK police are holding a priceless sculpture BBC, 26th June 2022). In the 1980s and '90s Nigeria's museums suffered many damaging robberies, apparently sometimes in collaboration with corrupt staff of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). Among the robberies was one on the night of 14 January 1987, when thieves broke into the Jos Museum, beat up the guard and made off with nine of the museum's most precious treasures.

The NCMM instantly alerted Unesco, providing photographs of everything stolen from Jos. In 1990 collectors in Switzerland were approached by a man trying to sell a beautiful Benin Bronze head for a half a million Swiss francs. The collectors were suspicious, and with the help of American, Swiss and Nigerian diplomats it was identified as having come from Jos and was returned to Nigeria. Meanwhile the other eight pieces had, apparently, vanished. Most of them, including the Ife head, are listed in a 1994 publication by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), entitled One Hundred Missing Objects; Looting in Africa. It wasn't until many years later, in bizarre circumstances, that the Ife head would reappear, in Belgium.
That's when things get a bit wozzy. On 14 November 2007, the Belgian authorities held an auction of "confiscated art items", and among them was this head, which was bought by a local antique dealer, for €200. What is not clear is how the Belgian authorities got the head and when, why they simply sold it instead of returning it to Nigeria. This is just sheer incompetence. The dealer claims that, despite the obvious quality of the piece, and the fact that Swiss collectors did know what issues were involved and which questions to ask, he did not know what he was buying and what problems there could be with its provenance. In 2007. What kind of a dealer is that?
The Nigerian authorities are incandescent, not least because Belgium's failure to answer these questions may make it impossible to ever discover what happened to the other pieces stolen from Jos. [...] As for the antique dealer, I managed to track him down. We had a short, terse telephone conversation. "Did you know you were buying stolen property?" I asked the man, who we have decided not to name. "Of course I didn't, I bought it from the Belgian state," he replied, and put the phone down.
Hmmm. This is Belgium, this citizen is convinced that the Belgian state never stole anything itself from Africa (Belgian Congo, Heart of Darkness)? Really? 

"We have decided not to name" the dealer says the journalist,  as though the wider public has no right to know. If the dealer's done nothing wrong, then they can go on the record. Anyway, the dealer who had bought the head for a bargain price in good faith decided not to try and shift it straight away. They waited ten years. Waited for what? (serious question):
The story then leaps forward 10 years, to London and 2017, when the dealer tried to sell the head through Woolley and Wallis, who passed it on to the British police. In 2019 the police took the head to the British Museum, where curators confirmed its authenticity [...] the head has been sitting in a secure police facility for the past five years.
It is not stated whether Woolley and Wallis were the first auction houses approached. Anyway, the Nigerian government has asserted its ownership, but the dealer refuses to relinquish their claim. What happened subsequently is explained by Babatunde Adebiyi, a Nigerian museum official:
In 2019 a Nigerian delegation met the dealer. The atmosphere, according to Mr Adebiyi, was "cordial". Mr Adebiyi pleaded with him. "I told him he could be an international hero. He said he wanted money, not people saying nice things about him." The Nigerians say that at times the dealer has asked for €5m, but has brought his price down. British officials tell me he is now asking for €39,000 (£33,500).
If he does not care for what people say about him, all the more reason why he can be named. After all, many clients will want to know which dealer can take an object they bought for €200 and sell it for them for €39,000, irrespective of its pedigree. Magic.

Here is an interesting video about these Ife heads.

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