A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Modern-Day Looting of the Treasures of the Past
NOTE: IT seems in fashion to tell that all African Art is looting, but this probably is a biased view of things, due to the fact that value of Art is increasing, and that previous owners, who where happy with the price they received in the past, have second thoughts. Mostly items have been sold and acquired in a legal way from the legal owners. David Norden.
found at Business Day (Johannesburg) AllAfrica.com
NEWS April 1, 2006
TREASURE these days comes in many forms. It doesn't have to be silver or gold; it can be a bullet casing, an old jug or bits of bone. All over the world, collectors salivate over battlefield memorabilia, antiques, artefacts and art -- and many are quite happy to add smuggled cultural heritage items to their collections.
Trafficking in cultural property is the third-largest illicit trade in the world after drugs and arms. And although Interpol says the scale is impossible to measure, trade in stolen or smuggled cultural property is estimated to be worth about R28bn a year, 10% of which is accounted for by Africa.
In Paris last year, customs officials stumbled upon a haul containing enough smuggled African artefacts and archaeological items to fill a museum. The half-ton consignment, stuffed with looted Neolithic arrowheads, dinosaur teeth and rare terracotta figurines from Niger, was destined for Belgium, a country that has not signed international conventions enforcing the repatriation of stolen art and artefacts.
And SA is far from immune to the trade. Armed robbers broke into a University of the Witwatersrand library a couple of years ago and stole a number of antique maps from their frames. Only the most valuable were chosen. A white rhino horn was nicked from the Transvaal Museum, a bronze sculpture disappeared from the Natale Labia and a R2,5m Pierneef painting was brazenly removed from the SA Broadcasting Corporation offices.
Items from museums and institutions across the country, including the Iziko South African National Gallery, the SA National Cultural History Museum and the Isandlwana site museum, have gone astray; not all have been recovered.
High-profile artworks are not the only targets. "There are collectors who will take anything that's got some sort of interesting provenance attached to it," says Barry Marshall, director of Amafa, the KwaZulu-Natal heritage body.
"A horseshoe nail that came from the battle of Isandlwana, for some strange reason, is of value to a collector.
"Theft from battlefields has been a big problem in the past, although it's not as extensive as it used to be."
Auctioneer Stephan Welz believes SA is losing artefacts such as ceremonial sticks, beaded items, headrests and snuff bottles. "These are disappearing out of the country. There's demand all over the world," he says. "If a Zulu item comes up for sale in New York, it commands a phenomenal price." Tsonga maternity sticks have sold at Sotheby's in New York for as much as R280000, while Zulu headrests have sold for between R248000 and R937000. "These are the kinds of items being smuggled," Welz says.
Theft from South African museums is not yet rife -- possibly, says Gerard de Kamper of the SA Museums Association, because "there's no knowledge of these things". A few items have gone astray at embassies, however. "A lot of embassies buy South African art and artefacts and when an ambassador leaves, he sometimes takes it along."
But "only a few cases of theft of South African art or cultural property is reported to the police every year", says police spokesperson Tummi Golding. It is not yet comparable to the large-scale looting of museums in Nigeria, where 429 objects were stolen from 33 museums and institutions in the 1990s.
Nigerian museum staff and senior government officials were implicated in the thefts amid rumours of items being smuggled out of the country in diplomatic bags.
The illegal trade in artefacts is so bad in some parts of Africa "that people are talking about cultural genocide", says Carol Kaufmann, the curator of African Arts at the SA National Gallery.
Yet according to De Kamper, South African museums are reluctant to speak up about missing items. And, if Interpol is not informed about such thefts, stolen items cannot be recovered, even if they are spotted.
"This is a very big thing: museums are scared to report theft. It's difficult for people to keep their things safe; it's easy for someone to break the glass and take something. And if you get something more organised, there's almost nothing you can do," De Kamper says.
Official bodies such as the South African Police Service and the South African Heritage Resources Agency (SAHRA) are also careful about making thefts public knowledge. "Information received from museums is confidential," says Golding. "The museums have authority to disclose to the media."
She says there are 37 stolen South African artworks listed on the Interpol database. But while the police put increased numbers of reported cases down to heightened awareness of the problem, nobody really knows how big the losses are.
"We cannot comment on the scale of the problem and statistics regarding the number of heritage objects stolen each year," says Ceciline Muller of SAHRA. "Due to insufficient staff and lack of resources, information is not always available. In most instances when information exists, it must be kept confidential until a verdict is reached in court."
Government has acknowledged the problem. "This is a pressing national issue," says Sandile Memela, the spokesman for the arts and culture department. "It is important for us to protect and preserve material that tells our own story as a people."
Keeping tabs on cultural items from other countries is also important for tourism reasons. "We have a museum with two ceramic vases from China," De Kamper says. "At least 1000 people in the past two years came to SA just to view those two vases. You can calculate how much income that brought SA."
Arts and Culture Minister Pallo Jordan announced the launch of a strategy to halt the illegal trade in cultural property in August last year. A national forum made up of representatives of the department, museums, SAHRA, the police and customs officials has since been created. Its main focus is to train law enforcement officials to "identify national treasures", Memela says, and to beef up the reporting and tracking of stolen items.
Legislation is in place. Under the National Heritage Resources Act, export permits must be obtained from SAHRA for all objects more than 60 years old. SA has also signed the 1970 United Nations convention prohibiting the illicit trade of cultural property, and is becoming a signatory to a more recent convention on repatriation of stolen objects.
But, says Welz, "It's the old problem of nobody being there to exercise (the laws). In fact, I don't think most customs officials know it exists." He believes dealers sell items to tourists who are seldom searched at customs.
Government progress on fighting the trade is also behind schedule. A Promotion of Heritage National Strategy to protect SA's intangible cultural heritage, due to be accepted by cabinet by the end of last year, is yet to be completed.
An audit of all cultural properties in SA is also taking place -- essential because at the moment, nobody knows exactly what's in the approximately 1000 museums and state institutions such as Parliament and the Union Buildings.
Memela says the audit involves first identifying all the state custodians of heritage resources and the nature of the collections and inventories, then recording all items on a national database.
Initial planning is "almost complete", says Memela; compilation of the register should begin in earnest by the end of this year.
But, according to De Kamper, the audit is a race against time. From July next year, all municipal museums are due to fall under provincial control, in accordance with section five of the constitution. The trouble is that if no one knows exactly what items are in these municipal museums, they could vanish during the transfer.
"So it's sort of a rat race to make sure municipalities do not sell their collections, because there are a lot of municipalities that would just love to get rid of their collections and make money," De Kamper says. And timing is going to be a problem. "KwaZulu-Natal didn't know about the change in the law until about a month ago."
The decision to bring local museums under provincial control is not yet finalised, says Memela. "There is a view that local government lacks the capacity to effectively run and manage museums."
Even when stolen goods are found (and less than 10% of stolen art is ever recovered), getting them back to SA is not always easy.
Take four pieces of rare 18th century Cape silver, nicked from the South African National Cultural History Museum by an employee more than 15 years ago.
"He was a nasty piece of work," Welz says.
"When he left the museum, he stole some choice items that would have a value in Europe."
The silver was bought by a Belgian antiques dealer named Elkan Wijnberg, who is prepared to sell it back to the museum for more than R300000 (he reportedly bought the pieces for about R16000).
Makgolo Makgolo, CEO of the Northern Flagship Institution, which oversees the National Cultural History Museum, says the Belgian embassy will be contacted and attempts made to resolve the matter via diplomatic channels. Meanwhile, Welz is trying to find a benefactor to buy the pieces back.
There is hope because the pieces were reported as stolen and cannot be resold outside Belgium.
But finding the unknown numbers of pieces quietly leaving SA is a different story altogether.
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