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Experts Say a Reported Ancient Nigerian Sculpture That Mexico Repatriated to African Nation Is a Fake

Ancient artifacts from the Nigerian city of Ife can give observers insight into the history of its culture, dynasties and many deities. Art objects from the once-powerful Yoruba kingdom are prized by collectors and considered cultural treasures of the African nation, but a bronze sculpture that recently had been reported as stolen from the area proved to be something else.

On Feb. 25 Mexico seized what was thought to be an ancient bronze sculpture from the southwestern Nigerian city after a buyer, whose identity was not revealed, attempted to smuggle it into the country via Mexico City’s main airport, Mexican officials say.

“We oppose the illegal commercialization of archaeological pieces, an important cause of the impoverishment of the cultural heritage of the nations of origin, since it undermines the integrity of cultures and, therefore, of humanity,” Julián Ventura Valero, the deputy secretary of foreign affairs, said to BBC News.

The sculpture, which is of a man sitting cross-legged, wearing a head dress and holding an object, was seized by custom officers and later repatriated to Nigeria’s ambassador to Mexico. The sculpture’s origin was said to have been verified by Mexico’s National Institute of Anthropology and History as Yoruba, but specialists in ancient African art say the bronze sculpture is fake.

Julien Volper, a curator at the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren, Belgium, said the returned item was a counterfeit of poor quality.

“I confirm that object is a fake, and of the worst quality. You can find a lot of the same type [of objects] on eBay,” he told The Art Newspaper in March. “This story is ridiculous, and a shame for Mexico.”

Yves-Bernard Debie, a Belgian lawyer who practices in cultural trade, felt Mexico’s gesture was a failed attempt to join the African art restitution trend. 

“This demonstrates once again the haste with which governments handle the ‘fashionable’ issue of restitution, disregarding legal, historical facts,” Debie, a sharp critic of the movement to restore non-European art from museums to the pieces’ lands of origin, told the newspaper.

The issue of restitution was up for debate in November 2018 after French President Emmanuel Macron pledged to repatriate African artifacts, stating that “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”

As an attempt to turn a page on the colonial past of the French, Macron supported a draft report on returning art that had been looted from Africa.

Debie said at the time that Macron’s proposal had no reliable evidence, according to the Financial Times.

“By anchoring the question of sharing world cultural property in the context of ‘restitution,’ President Macron has sparked a fire that he will have a great deal of trouble extinguishing,” he said. “To restitute means to return something to its legitimate owner. As a result of this reasoning, France would be regarded as unlawfully keeping museum collections and works acquired during colonization.”

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