the antiquities trade in Nigeria: looting in the midst of economic, environmental, political and professional crisis

African nations’ cultural objects have been harvested by foreign powers; attacked by religious movements and political factions; and, sometimes under duress, reduced to commodities and sacrificed for subsistence or survival. Still now, Nigerian ‘archaeological sites’ are ‘daily looted’; as Neil Brodie observed, nearly half of the objects on the International Council of Museums’ (ICOM) list of African ‘cultural goods most affected by looting and theft‘ are Nigerian artefacts.

In this post, which was published in Vanguard (Nigeria) on the 1st of November 2012, I outline the nature of the illicit trade in Nigerian antiquities and the struggle against that trade.

Smashing and stealing: colonial plunderers, religious zealots, political activists and modern pirates


During the colonial period, a ‘priceless portion’ of the cultural heritage of many oppressed peoples was ‘robbed’, ‘plunder[ed]’, ‘despoiled’. Simultaneously, foreign, “civilising missions” destroyed non-Christian ritual objects.

After independence, ‘greed[y]’ ‘modern pirates‘ continued to plunder vulnerable cultural heritage sites around the world; and they continued to indulge in ‘large-scale theft and pillaging‘ at African archaeological sites, monuments and museums. And alongside the chronic problem of theft, there have been programmes of destruction – for instance, the Apartheid regime’s ‘war and destabilization’/’total strategy’ against guerrilla resistance, which involved destruction of churches, mosques and villages.


In Nigeria, local community Muslim iconoclasts have smashed idols, and looted for non-ideological profit. Primarily African Christian evangelists have smashed cultural objects (indeed, one evangelist leader, Uma Ukpai, ‘has boasted of overseeing the destruction of more than 100 shrines in one district in December 2005 alone’); and they have committed pillage-as-sacrilege. In addition to these activities, communities have been gouged by economic forces; they have been forced to tear their archaeological heritage out of the ground and sell it in order to subsist.

This family-splitting mess of motives and acts has happened in the context of ten coups and military junta rule between 1966 and 1979, and 1983 and 1998; and it is now happening in the context of a ‘war‘ between the secular state and Islamist militants striving to establish a Shari’ah state. Islamist terrorist group Boko Haram (whose name means “Western Education is Sinful”) have ‘claimed responsibility for bombing churches‘; Nigerian security forces have burned villages, and police have chosen not to stop other violence. In disturbances tied to elections, political factions have burned down churches and mosques.

An example of colonial plunder: the 1897 Benin Punitive Expedition

The looting of (now-)Nigerian antiquities began long before the birth of the independent Federation of Nigeria in 1960. In 1897, British rogue agents ignored requests and warnings not to interrupt a religious festival, and tried to plan an unauthorised invasion of the Kingdom of Benin to depose the king (oba).

The agents ‘hope[d] that sufficient ivory would be found in the King’s house to pay the expenses incurred in removing the King from his stool’. But the rogue force was literally stopped dead in its tracks. On the 4th of January, tribal chiefs ‘defied‘ the oba’s orders and committed the Benin Massacre (of 9 British officers and 250 African mercenaries).

Then, Britain decided to retaliate against the Kingdom of Benin for its insubordinate chiefs’ massacre of Britain’s insubordinate and aggressive soldiers. On the 10th of February, the British Admiralty sent British Marines and Niger Coast Protectorate troops on the Benin Punitive Expedition, to burn down and demolish Benin’s villages, its (religious) Juju houses and its (royal) palace; and to loot its cultural property, to pillage blood antiquities.

The conquest of Benin City began on the 18th of February; and, on the 21st, they ‘torched the city and burnt down practically every house’. British Marines plundered 900-1,000bronze plaques‘ (actually, brass plaques) from the king’s palace; and, in total (including other bronze, iron, ivory and wooden artefacts), they looted at least nearly 2,500, reportedly more than 3,000, pieces of cultural property. Absurdly, the plundered property was auctioned in Paris to cover the cost of its plunder; and the material is now scattered across Europe and North America.(1)

There are hints that the power relationship between Nigeria and market countries prevents Nigeria recovering its property from self-identified universal museums, which can provide or withhold programmes of capacity-building (for the preservation of cultural heritage still in Nigeria).

An example of museum robbery(?): ten terracottas and a piece of carved ivory

At least up until the 1990s, Nigerian museums had no alarms and no insurance, as well as impoverished employees. Thieves and a less-than-$3-a-day-waged museum guard took 200 million (perhaps 250 million) dollars’ worth of artefacts from the National Museum in Ile-Ife in a single heist; and it was robbed repeatedly. Thieves have ‘viciously attacked‘ and even killed museum staff.

According to the Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman (paraphrased by Tajudeen Sowole), Nigeria has ‘not recorded any theft of antiquities from its collections‘ since 1996. (Instead, the NCMM and reporting journalist Tajudeen Sowole have suggested that the objects could have been ‘loot[ed]‘ in historic or contemporary ‘illegal excavations‘ in northern Nigeria.)

First of all, it is immediately implausible that nothing has been stolen from any museum in Nigeria in the last sixteen years because, just in the last three years, there have been robberies of museums from Turkey, to Greece, to the United Kingdom, to the Netherlands, to India

Second, Usman denied any thefts in response to an official statement by Nigeria’s own Consul-General in New York, Habib Baba Habu, that ten Nok terracotta statues and one piece of carved ivory had been ‘stolen from the National Museum‘ (and smuggled through Senegal and France into the United States), but (with my emphasis) that ‘there [had been] no such report from Nigeria that the items [had been] stolen’ (via Paul Barford).

Sources disagreed over whether there was an investigation into the Director-General of the National Museum or into the Director-General of Museums and Antiquities (that is, the Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM)). Nonetheless, Consul-General Habu stated that the (unnamed, possibly former) director-general was under investigation ‘because the items were in storage, inventories under his care’ (though the time of their theft is not publicly known).

Habu stated that the identities of the perpetrators ‘were known but would not be divulged’ until they had investigated the entire criminal network. Based upon the career trajectories of the people in the relevant positions at the relevant times, this could implicate some of the most senior cultural heritage professionals in the country.

Despite the public secrecy over the suspected time of the theft and the suspected identities of the perpetrators, and the public secrecy or simple confusion over the suspected identity of the responsible museum director, now-NCMM Director-General Usman has ‘denied being investigated as the [Consul]-General in the U.S. alleged’. Since no-one has been arrested, it is not clear how Usman can know that he is not under investigation; but he may mean that he has not been questioned, or he may have been told either officially or privately.

Site digging

Village farmers are even more impoverished than museum guards; some farmers are forced to subsist on half-a-dollar-a-day. So, even larger than the robbery business is the digging economy.

Knowledge of Nok terracottas grew between the 1920s and 1960s. Then there was the famine-inducing Nigerian Civil War (or Nigerian-Biafran War) of 1967-1970; and when, in the 1970s, Nigeria began to suffer recurrent, severe droughts and floods, it also began to suffer chronic, large-scale looting and smuggling.

Now, according to the UNDP/UNICEF, the mean average income in Nigeria is about $5.50-$6 a day.(3)(4) However, 64% of Nigerians survive on less than $1.25 a day (N197) (5); 41% of under-fives suffer stunted growth; 14% suffer wasting; and 9% are severely underweight.

Itinerant antiquities traders travel from village to village, either buying already-found objects or supporting new searches (including to supply specialist orders); commonly, they pay about N1,000 (~$6) for every ‘good find’; and the diggers find around ten terracottas a day, but sometimes the traders pay the villagers two or more months’ wages for one antiquity. Naturally, when they do, this triggers an explosion in digging. A primary school teacher (and after-school digger), Abubakar Sala, observed ‘[f]armers let their crops rot because they were too busy digging for terra-cotta‘.

To get around the laws licensing excavation and export of antiquities, some looters and dealers have become ‘Accreditation Agents in mining‘; they pretend to dig for minerals, while actually unearthing artefacts. (Aside from the metaphor, I think that is why some reports talk about ‘artefact mines’.)

In 1993, a ‘consortium of European dealers‘ directed ‘many hundreds of diggers’. In 1994, a group of (seemingly local) traders oversaw thousands of diggers at one village; after police/army intervention disrupted that group’s endeavours, a couple of traders employed a thousand diggers each until the site’s archaeological resources were exhausted; then, between 1994 and 1995, they mined out site after site. And there has even been an increase in illicit excavations since then.

Those traders sell those objects to or through tourist markets in Nigeria and warehouses abroad, using government-licensed “handicrafts” and “contemporary arts”(2) as a cover for antiquities; and using the entire visible enterprise as a cover for under-the-counter (or behind-the-shop) sales of high-value goods. Specialist Nigerian dealers supply dealers, galleries, museums and collectors elsewhere in Africa, and in Europe and North America. Allied with and/or alongside these routes from source to market, there is online trading.

The whole body of material is riddled with over-restored pieces, or outright fakes/forgeries, some of which have doctored or completely fraudulent scientific authentications. (Archaeometrist Victor Bortolot has described the forgery process.)

Site protection

The Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has reformed its anti-smuggling laws so that its antiquities inspectors can ‘search and arrest [suspects], with or without warrant’, and prosecute them; has instituted public ‘sensitisation programmes’ (which through police interference, community intervention and/or economic potential, have proved effective); and has arranged ‘600 security and craftsmen’ to protect Nigerian archaeological sites (though it awaits funding) (via Paul Barford).

The Senate Committee on Culture and Tourism has called for the establishment of a dedicated department to combat antiquities trafficking, which would include (or involve, in parallel) expert staff at border points and extra staff for the NCMM, for both standard archaeological work and anti-trafficking activity (via Chasing Aphrodite). NCMM Director-General Usman wants to establish culture – especially cultural heritage – as ‘part of the development agenda’.

Less reassuringly, the NCMM has also made ‘thinly-veiled legal threat[s]’ against cultural heritage professionals who have highlighted the ‘crisis in Nigerian antiquities’…

Artefact rescue

At the same time, because Usman believes that archaeological resources ‘cannot be allowed to remain outside the protection of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments’, the NCMM purchases looted artefacts from ‘registered antiquity vendors’ in order ‘to prevent the objects from being sold to foreigners and private collectors’.

Some international cultural heritage professionals support similar ideas, such as conservator Patrick Darling, who has advocated a ‘temporary amnesty on all Nigerian antiquities in Europe‘. However, it resembles the Cypriot amnesty incredibly closely, and unfortunately I expect it would be equally unsuccessful.

Yet, ‘due to dwindling financial resources’, the buy-back programme is dysfunctional even on its own terms. The NCMM is still acquiring objects, while negotiating compensation with the antiquities dealers, and applying for compensation funds from the federal government. The Artefacts Rescuers Association of Nigeria is apparently owed N190m ($1.2m) (via Culture Advocates Caucus).

“Rescuer” Reverend Akindele said that the NCMM always owed money, and always tried to pay less than it owed, so it ‘destroyed [rescuers’] capital’. Tajudeen Sowole thus speculated that ‘some desperate rescuers’ (‘some of whom could be illegal artefacts dealer[s]’) could illegally export their archaeological finds and sell them on the international black market in order to restore their lost capital.

Artefact recovery

Reluctantly advising against the return of cultural property to Nigeria, the former Honorary Surveyor of Antiquities for Nigeria and Archaeologist and Curator of Ife Museum, Prof. Frank Willett, complained that his successors were ‘not only not taking care of their heritage, but… exploiting [it] by allowing its illicit export to dealers and collectors in the West‘.

Indeed, journalist Sara Persson observed that even previously-returned objects, ‘especially [in] Nigeria, [had] disappear[ed] or end[ed] up being re-sold on the black market‘.

In fact, ‘a top source close to the National Museum management’, ‘a very experienced manager of antiquities’, told the Guardian (Nigeria) that the NCMM had stopped the inventorying of archaeological artefacts and the recording of clearance permits, not as an austerity measure, but in order ‘to allow for more looting‘ by the country’s “rescuers”.


Despite the theoretically strict (1979) National Commission for Museums and Monuments Act, European and North American private antiquities collectors continued to drive the ‘systematic rape‘ of Nigeria’s archaeological heritage for almost 40 years, from the 1960s through to the 2000s; and there is still ‘[g]overnment indifference’ and ‘[c]orruption at the top’, as well as a simple lack of cultural heritage professionals and ‘proper policing’.

Practically stricter export laws have made illicit export more difficult; and the forgery industry has made collecting less appealing. So, the simplest problems in Nigeria are implementation and enforcement: effective law enforcement could target those few key traders and stem the flow of artefacts.

Nonetheless, the greatest threat to Nigeria’s cultural heritage has been, is and will remain economic. Recently, the Boko Haram insurgency has caused a farming-and-herding refugee crisis, which has exacerbated an existing food crisis; and now that there has been yet another flood, famine is looming over the country once more. There is a threat of a fearful humanitarian crisis, which may have awful cultural (and long-term economic) consequences.


Unfortunately, not all of the data are from the same time period (e.g. 1990s illicit antiquities market research; 2000s poverty research; etc.); but far more unfortunately, there is no sign of significant change in either market or poverty (nor of any change in the relationship between poverty and looting).


1: According to legal adviser Dr. Kwame Opoku (via Elginism), (some of) the Benin Bronzes are in:

  • England, in
    • the British Museum (which had between 700 and 900, 203 of which had been received from the British Colonial Office in 1898; however, between 1950 and 1972, it sold 24 back to Nigeria and exchanged 1 with it; sold 1 to either Nigeria or the Gold Coast (now, Ghana); sold or auctioned 6 to private buyers; and exchanged 5 with private dealers/collectors) in London;
    • the Horniman Museum in London;
    • the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford and the Pitt-Rivers’ country residence, Rushmore, in Farnham (which have 327);
  • Scotland, in
    • the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in Glasgow;
    • St. Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life (which has 22) in Glasgow;
  • the Netherlands, in
    • the State Museum of Ethnography (Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, which has 98) in Leiden;
  • France, in
  • Germany, in
    • the Ethnological Museum in Berlin (which has 580);
    • the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne (which has 73);
    • the State Museum of Ethnography (Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, which has 182) in Dresden;
    • the Ethnographic Museum (Museum für Völkerkunde) and Museum of Arts and Crafts (Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe, which has 196) in Hamburg;
    • the Ethnographic Museum (Museum für Völkerkunde, which has 87) in Leipzig;
    • the Linden Museum (State Museum of Ethnography (Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde), which has 80) in Stuttgart;
  • Austria, in
    • the Ethnological Museum (Museum für Völkerkunde) in Vienna (which has 167); and
  • the United States, in

Other material remains hidden away in private collections. For example, the Benin Ivory Pendant Mask and other property of Queen Mother Idia was to be sold at Sotheby’s, but it was ‘withdrawn from sale at the request of the consignors [sellers – private collectors/dealers]’. The material may be returned to its original owners; or it may be retained by its current possessors, auctioned at another time in a different place, or sold privately.

2: The National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) certifies material as legally-acquired (through either artisanal creation of cultural products or licit purchase of ancient artefacts) and thus legally-saleable and -exportable.

3: $2,069$2,160 a year (~N326,487-N340,847). The “N” is the symbol of the Nigerian naira; also written as NGN.

4: The minimum daily wage had been about $1.50; while there was a proposal for a national minimum of $6.25-a-day, the Nok region’s minimum has only just been raised to $3.75-a-day. (The minimum annual salary had been N7500 a month; the 2009 proposal was N30,000 a month; and the 2012 minimum wage in the Nok region is N18,000 a month.)

5: less than $456.25 (N71,995) a year.

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