Agencies Confront Rise in Stolen African Art

On the cover of the International Council of Museums' latest catalog is a poster: two statuettes, a hand offering a wadded-up bill, and the warning, ''It is an offense to buy or sell antiquities.''

This is no ordinary art book. It is an inventory of objects stolen from museums or archaeological sites in 22 African countries -- part of a campaign launched by the International Council of Museums (ICOM), UNESCO, and the international police agency INTERPOL, to combat looting.

''Looting is relatively new to Africa,'' says ICOM secretary-general Elizabeth des Portes. ''Thefts occurred in the past in village communities, but now we have examples of entire museums that have been emptied of their collections,'' she says. Archeological sites, too, are easy prey.

African poverty, as well as the isolation of these sites, make illicit digging a temptation to thieves. Police sources can't estimate the dimensions of the problem, but signs betray the handiwork of organized traffickers. Within three weeks of news of an illicit dig, Ms. des Portes reports, objects from the site begin appearing in galleries in Europe.

According to Pierre Cornette de St. Cyr, an auctioneer specializing in primitive art at Paris's Drouot auction house, interest in African art in the West is up sharply: ''Collectors of African art are fanatics. Passionate. They want very rare pieces. They're willing to pay the price,'' he says.

This worries des Portes, who says obsessive collectors -- or the galleries that supply them -- might actually commission illicit digs. ''It's especially devastating for Africa,'' she adds, ''because in the past, people thought there was no history in Africa. But recent archeological discoveries show that there is a history. And if these objects are taken out of their context, they can no longer say anything about the history of Africa.''

Bernard Dulon, a specialist in African archeology at Paris auctioneers de Quay and Lombrail, defends what he calls ''private archeological research.'' ''It led to the discovery of these civilizations, and allowed objects -- which, after all, belong to the patrimony of humanity as a whole -- to be protected,'' he says. ''These digs, which help the locals earn a living, are clean business, even if they skirt the law,'' he insists. Pushed further on the notion of the law, Dulon shakes his head: ''Application of legislation isn't uniform in Africa like in the West. The African has a familial notion of the law,'' he says.

One of the goals of the UNESCO program is to change such attitudes. ''The rumor was spread that there wasn't any legal protection of this heritage anyway, so anyone could do anything,'' des Portes says. ''But the legislation exists. We've reprinted the relevant laws to show that the African governments are interested in preserving their heritage.''

Still, no major European importing nation has signed the 1970 UNESCO convention on the prevention of illicit import and export of cultural property. And a 1993 treaty between the United States and Mali, prohibiting the import to the United States of objects whose export is illegal in Mali, is one of a kind.

And the means for enforcing laws on the books are slim. Even at INTERPOL, only two officers are assigned to art theft world-wide. ''Statistics don't even exist,'' says Jean-Pierre Jouanny, who was a local policeman on the art beat before being transferred to INTERPOL.

But not all the news is grim. ICOM's des Portes cultivates a small stock of anecdotes that is steadily growing. The tall funerary statues on page 101 of the catalog, for example, were stolen from graves in Madagascar: In January, des Portes received a phone call from someone saying he'd seen them on sale at the Brussels antique market. The statues are currently in the custody of the Belgian police

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