This week, an American art collector returned nine carved statues, known as "vigango," to Kenya. The return comes two decades after they were looted from local burial sites. From New York, VOA's Sean Maroney reports the sale of stolen art is an international problem.
Experts estimate at least 400 of these vigango, valued at thousands of dollars each, are held in collections of individuals and museums worldwide. At least 19 museums in the United States alone showcase these statues.
Kelly Gingras is an art dealer in the northeastern state of Connecticut. She discovered the nine vigango at an estate sale of a prominent New York couple, Jay Presson and Lewis Allen, who are known for their eclectic art collection. Gingras obtained permission from the couple's daughter to display the statues at her gallery. She says what happened next came as a surprise. "I typed it into [the online search engine] Google "vigango" and 'Kenya,' just because I research everything [because] I do sales, and pages and pages came up urging people to please bring these back, these are our ancestors' burial totems," she said.
It is not clear how many vigango were looted in recent decades from burial sites and homes in villages along the Kenyan coast.
Jonathan Reyman is Curator of Anthropology at the Illinois State Museum. His museum has some 40 vigango and recently returned one after being contacted through the National Museums of Kenya by members of a Kenyan family who had proof that the statue belonged to them.
Reyman says it is very difficult to prove ownership of these artifacts. "Some of them are pretty distinctive. Others, because of the ravages of time, become almost indistinguishable in their characteristics, so it would be very difficult, I think, for older ones to be reclaimed on the basis of a photo. I'm just not sure the photo would be distinctive enough," he said.
Reyman says people who think they may have had their property stolen should contact their local museum and send out a notice with as much information as possible.
He says museums cannot ignore the illicit trade of art. "I think it's a very serious problem. I can't give you a dollar amount, but I think it's a serious problem. But then so is the trade in ivory and in animal parts of other sorts. I mean, it's part of a general worldwide problem, and it's not limited to Africa," he said.
Interpol estimates that trade in non-Western cultural property is worth billions of dollars a year worldwide.
This year, the International Council of Museums published a list of Afghan antiquities at risk of being smuggled out of the country. Council officials say sites and monuments in Afghanistan are systematically being looted.
The cultural world was outraged at the massive looting of Iraqi museums and historic sites that took place in the aftermath of the U.S.-led invasion four years ago.
Russian cultural institutions have been plagued with thefts since the early 1990s when funding for preservation was reduced. A Russian court sentenced the husband of a former museum curator to five years in prison this year following conviction for stealing valuable art objects from St. Petersburg's famed Hermitage Museum.
In regards to Kenya's vigango, poor youths are responsible for many of the thefts in order to make quick money from interested traders and collectors.
Art dealer Kelly Gingras says she understands many people buy art as an investment, hoping their collections will appreciate in value over time. She says more people would probably turn in their pieces to the authorities if they received some sort of compensation instead of the loss of both the art and money. "I think more people would come forward and say, 'yes, I would like to give these back,' and then they wouldn't feel as bad because it just wouldn't be I'm handing over my cash," she said.
But both Reyman and Gingras say they hope others will be inspired by their actions to return stolen art.