Mexico returns ancient Ife bronze sculpture to Nigeria

The retrieved sculpture -- PHOTO CREDIT Government Of Mexico official website
The retrieved sculpture -- PHOTO CREDIT Government Of Mexico official website

The Mexican government on Tuesday delivered to Nigeria an ancient Ife bronze sculpture seized by customs agents at Benito Juarez International Airport, Mexico City.

The Mexican officials said it was intended to be delivered by mail before it was intercepted at the airport just as its buyer tried to bring it into Mexico.

The sculpture, which dates back to sixth century Ife, is that of a man wearing woven pants and a hat, sitting with his legs crossed and holding an instrument.

The Mexican government revealed this on its official website, adding that they have handed it over.

The recovery comes on the heels of the federal government’s resolve to use all “legal and diplomatic instruments” to demand the return of Nigeria’s stolen artefacts and cultural materials worldwide.

The recovery was announced by representatives of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (SRE) of the Secretariat of Culture, through the National Institute of Anthropology and History (INAH), the Embassy of Nigeria in Mexico and the Central Administration of Customs Operation.

A Nigerian treasure

“Specialists from the National Institute of Anthropology and History determined that it was a piece of Yoruba origin,” Diego Prieto, head of the agency, told a press conference.

At the delivery ceremony, held at the headquarters of the Mexican Foreign Ministry, the Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, Julián Ventura, said Mexico and Nigeria are multiethnic and multilingual nations, therefore, they are engaged in the fight against theft, robbery, and looting of cultural goods.

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They said the immediate detection of the sculpture and its subsequent authentication, as well as the conductive diplomatic efforts, have allowed the restoration of this cultural good to the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

The Undersecretary of Foreign Affairs, Julián Ventura, and the Nigerian ambassador to Mexico, Aminu Iyawa, highlighted the struggle of both countries against the illicit traffic in cultural property

The official said the Mexican Government is also promoting legal measures, within the framework of the UNESCO Convention on the subject (1970), and seeks to strengthen the current international legal framework, being a task “to which we wish to add a growing number of international partners, and where civil society and the private sector can play a leading role.”

In his remarks, the Nigerian ambassador to Mexico, Aminu Iyawa, said the restitution of the sculpture to Nigeria is an action that adds to the global call to return the heritage legacy that was once expelled to their countries of origin, many of them with a colonialist past like Nigeria and Mexico.

Mr Iyawa said despite subscribing to the Convention on the measures to be taken to prohibit and prevent the import, export, and transfer of illicit property of cultural property, “most countries still do not return these valuable objects of culture to their peoples of origin”.

He highlighted the work of the INAH specialist Raffaela Cedraschi, who intervened in the review and analysis of the piece, determining that it is an important cultural asset for the Yoruba people of Nigeria.

Belgium still owes Nigeria

In a related development, The United Kingdom recently offered to assist Nigeria in retrieving the Ife Bronze Head, an antiquity stolen at National museum, Jos in 1987.

It was found with a Belgian collector in London, about thirty years after.

The British Minister for Arts, Heritage and Tourism, Helen Whately, NP made the pledge in London when the Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed paid her a visit in her office.

Mr Mohammed explained that the matter dated back to 1987, specifically, on January 14, when the National Museum in Jos was burgled and several valuable objects of art and artefacts were stolen.

He said the antiquity surfaced almost 30 years later in the UK when a Belgian vendor came forward asking for it to be evaluated.

The auction house notified the UK Metropolitan Police who in turn notified, UNESCO and the Nigerian Permanent Representative in the commission.

Mr Mohammed said the Belgian authority claimed that they were not a party to the UNESCO Convention at the time the item was bought by their citizen.

The minister said the Belgian collector is asking for 5 million Euros for an object that he said he purchased for 240 Euros.

The retrieved sculpture Photo credit Melitón Tapia INAH
The retrieved sculpture Photo credit Melitón Tapia INAH

“Our position is that he is not a buyer in good faith and he is not just an ordinary buyer but a collector with a very impressive collection bigger than most museums,” he said.

Onto some cheering news, an Ife bronze cockerel statue donated to Jesus College, U.K, by the father of a student in 1905, is to be returned to Nigeria.

The ‘Okukor’, which the college described as a “royal ancestral heirloom”, will be one of the first Benin bronzes to be returned to Nigeria by a major British institution.

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