A pair of sacred statues that a Nigerian museum commission and protesters claimed were looted during the country’s 1960s civil war have been sold for €212,500 (£194,183) at auction in Paris.
The Igbo statues were sold by the Christie’s auction house, which defended the sale and said the artworks were legitimately acquired.
Nigeria is “saddened” by the sale of two sculptures belonging to the south-eastern Igbo community, an official from the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, has said.
A prominent art historian who had called on the renowned auction house, Christie’s, to cancel the sale, Prof Chika Okeke-Agulu told the BBC the two objects were “looted” from shrines during the civil war in the late 1960s.
The items were sold for just under $240,000 (£194,183) in Paris.
Christie’s rejected the claim that the sculptures were stolen, saying the Monday sale was perfectly legal.
The wooden objects about 1.5 metres high, one male and one female, represent deities from the Igbo community, their hands face upwards waiting to receive sacrifices and gifts.
“Christie’s ought not be dealing in Nigerian antiquities that were probably taken out at a time of conflict, contrary to the Hague Convention of 1954,” Babatunde Adebiyi, legal adviser for the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said, adding that Nigeria “was saddened” by the sale.
Prof Okeke-Agulu from Princeton University says the objects were looted from communal shrines in his native Anambra state, with the help of local conspirators.
He said they could not have been acquired legally because they were removed during the 1960s Biafran civil war, when the Igbo community attempted to secede from Nigeria.
“Growing up in Nigeria, we would pass by these destroyed and looted shrines and they would point to them, [saying] ‘these were the shrines that were looted and destroyed during the war,'”.
The historian believes the loss of these sculptures has meant that a key part of Igbo cultural identity has been lost for future generations.
He accused Christie’s and other art collectors of “expropriation”.
“To pretend we don’t matter – what we think doesn’t matter – is for me a recast of the colonial arrogance that we are still dealing with in other parts of the African continent,” Prof Okeke-Agulu said.
Meanwhile Christie’s Auction house has defended the auction.
“The auction house believes there is no evidence these statues were removed from their original location by someone who was not local to the area, or that the area they came from at the time they were acquired was part of the conflict at the time,” it said in a statement.
“Our understanding is that even prior to the conflict, local agents were trading in objects such as these and they were starting to circulate more widely,” it said.
It added that at no stage “has there been any suggestion that these statues were subject to improper export”.