Nigeria and the Belgian antique dealer are yet to come to reach an agreement on the stolen bronze Ife head. Consequently, the artifact will continue to be in the custody of the British police. The main bone of contention is that the antique dealer said Nigeria must pay a certain sum before the artifact will be released. However, Nigeria believes it is unreasonable to pay for something that was rightfully hers.
The bronze Ife head is estimated to be nearly 700 years old and only around 20 such art pieces are still in existence to this day. According to BBC reports, the antique dealer obtained the artwork at an auction for confiscated art items hosted by Belgian authorities on 14th November 2007.
Since the event was organized by the Belgian government, the man did not suspect the bronze Ife head was stolen. A 2019 BBC report said delegates from Nigeria met the artifact dealer in a friendly environment. National museum officials related the outcome.
“I explained how he could be a global hero. His reply was simply I need money, not the nice things people will say. The dealer wants us to pay him €5m but later reduced it to €39,000 ($40,885).”
How the bronze Ife head landed in police custody
It all started in 2017 when the dealer made attempts to sell the bronze Ife head through Woolley and Wallis. However, Woolley and Wallis passed it to the British police. Two years later, the British police took it to the British Museum where its authenticity was confirmed by comparing it to the casts of the 1940s.
Although the British police were able to ascertain the origin of the sculpture, they decided to remain neutral in the case. According to the British police, the Belgian dealer is innocent of any crime because he bought the bronze Ife head from a government auction.
“Inasmuch as it was obviously stolen, we cannot take someone’s individual property because it legally belongs to the dealer. This case can only be resolved between the dealer and the Nigerian government.”
The British authorities are of the opinion that since the error was made by the Belgian government, they should pay the dealer. However, the Belgian government is silent on this.
How the bronze Ife head was stolen
It is important to mention that the bronze Ife head was one of the 9 most precious treasures stolen from the Jos Museum on January 14, 1987. Hoodlums broke into the museum, beat up the guards, and made away with the artifacts.
After the incident, Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMN) was proactive in alerting UNESCO as well as providing backup photographs of all that was stolen. One of the nine pieces was recovered in 1990 when a Switzerland collector tried to sell a gorgeous Benin bronze head for 500,000 Swiss francs. It was eventually returned to Nigeria.
The whereabouts of the remaining eight pieces are still unknown. The bronze Ife head is one of the artworks included in the “One Hundred Missing Objects; Looting in Africa”, a 1994 publication by the International Council of Museums (ICOM). The bronze Ife head later surfaced in Belgium in mysterious circumstances.
Efforts to return all treasures stolen from Nigeria
According to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), at least 1,500 Nigerian artifacts scattered all over the world will be retrieved in 2022. The Director-General of NCMM, Abba Tijani said the artifacts will be repatriated from Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and the UK.
Upon their return, NCMM plans to hold massive exhibitions where these artworks will be open to public view. Like Nigeria, many other African countries are fighting for the return of their stolen treasures. We have covered some of them in the past. Here is one of the most iconic of them all.