A collection of Nigerian antiquities of great historical and cultural significance have found their way back to the country. The antiquities, which dates back about 2,000 years, were first detected in France, en route the US, and seized at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City in April 2010. They were returned by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to the Nigerian Consulate in New York at a special handing-over ceremony on Thursday July 26, 2012.
A total of 10 statues and one carved tusk were returned to Nigeria and all of them are the work of the ancient Nok culture, which existed over 2000 years ago, but disappeared under unknown circumstances about 1500 years ago. Named in 1928 after the village of Nok, in Plateau State, Nigeria, where the first sculpture was unearthed, Nok art depicts humans and animals with distinctive elongated features and a characteristic bronze/orange tinge—a colour typical of terracotta “fired clay” pieces.
Nigeria’s Consul General in New York, Habib Baba Habu, signed the legal papers returning the artifacts on behalf of the Federal Government. Though many Nok figurines have left Nigeria illegally and flooded the international art market, Habu explained that some were taken out legally, and are displayed at museums all over the world.
At the press conference, neither the US nor Nigerian officials were willing to reveal the identities of those behind the smuggling of these irreplaceable sculptures two years after they were stolen. The US Customs Border Protection’s Director of Field Operations in New York, Robert Perez, said the investigations lasted that long because they had to take detailed procedural steps and focus mainly on identifying and ascertaining the “rightful owners” of the antiquities. He also said that investigations are still going on to determine whether there are broader networks involved in the national and international crime.
However, Habu said that the artifacts apparently had been stolen from the National Museums in Nigeria. “These were stolen from the National Museum, but there was no such report from Nigeria that the items were stolen. Now the DG of the Museum is being investigated because the items were in storage, inventories under his care,” Habu said.
The specific time when the figurines were stolen could not be established as the looted shipment had a zigzag route mapped out for it, probably to elude suspicion and identification of its source of origin. The antiquities were actually shipped from Senegal to the France, en route the US, where French officials detected and detained it. This suggests they were looted in Nigeria, and then shipped to Senegal.
Habu decribed the artifacts as priceless and thanked the US government “on behalf of the government and people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria”. He stated that the ten figurines and one carved Tusk will be returned to the national museum for display, at a ceremony which will be presided by the Minister of Foreign Affairs.