My Word, October 2011

In the July/August issue of Archaeology Magazine, Roger Atwood revisits Nigeria and the Nok civilization. It is interesting that Atwood pretty much ignores the major 1995 Nok finds in which Nigerians played a major part in getting these antiquities into the commercial markets. After the initial discovery, European and American. African art markets were flooded with terracottas. Collectors, dealers and curators were aggressively pursuing these sculptures. But what did we all really know about either Nok material culture or the stylistic parameters of known authentic objects? It became obvious; we didn’t know much.
After buying a major Inland Niger Delta piece in 1989 from an old collection here in the U.S., I began appraising African terracottas a decade later. My work in this area was actually limited to one collector who certainly had one of the largest, if not the largest collection, of ancient African terracottas in the U.S. From the beginning, I would not touch any of these terracottas without the onsite, thorough inspection of a conservator. The collector gave me anything that I thought was necessary to complete the appraisal assignment. The conservator used a black light and a probe, which at the time seemed adequate to determine the condition of the sculptures.
The first few years of the next decade caused me to question whether we were doing enough. I explained to the collector that confirming the good condition of an object was adding value to his art. I felt that the value would be increased because I was certain we were doing more to authenticate these objects than most other appraisers. By 2004, I began to understand that the authentication of African terracottas was far more complex than any of us had previously thought. This enlightened moment came as the result of an investigation of a major Nok figure I had acquired and was offering to a museum for a significant amount of money. My colleagues and I exhausted all methodology known to me to confirm the authenticity and condition of this object.
I hired a well-known Nigerian expert who made a total of 72 phone calls to Nigeria to confirm that this piece could be legally acquired. The sculpture passed all the tests, but I still had that nagging feeling that something was not right. I turned to Mark Rasmussen in Stillwater, MN and showed him the x-rays, the thermoluminescent testing, the black light examinations and the research data. Rasmussen followed the methodology that he outlined in “Setting the Standard for Due Diligence: Scientific Techniques in the Authentication Process” (www.rare-collections.com) . Rasmussen arranged for a thorough cat scan, which confirmed that the figure was a pastiche comprised of multiple fragments of unrelated figures and restorative material. The good news was that I didn't make a fool of myself in front of a major museum. The bad news was that this was little consolation for our efforts that yielded nothing for our time but experience for the future.
From 2006 on, to ensure we had a thorough understanding of the clay body we were sampling, I did not appraise any African terracotta figures without a cat scan first. We learned a great deal. Ironically, now I look at African terracottas with the same cynicism previously reserved for Pre-Columbian objects. Several years ago when I traveled around the U.S. introducing Mark Rasmussen to some of my friends in the museum world, there was a general acceptance of technology and Marks' expertise by recognizing the importance of testing objects potential future acquisitions. There was, however, little enthusiasm for testing objects currently on view. I get this and recognize that the politics of the moment dictates what will or will not be done. Translated, this means kick the problem down the road until the current decision makers are dealing with problems at some other institution.
Peter Breunig of the Johann Wolfgang Goethe Museum in Frankfurt is back in Nigeria working on the Nok sites with his colleague Nicole Rupp. Their mission is to expand the knowledge base of Iron Age societies in Africa. Whether this work and the work of other archaeologists create more market interest is for the moment speculation. Overly restored objects, disreputable sellers, and efforts to halt the importation to Europe and the U.S. of terracotta from Mali and Nigeria have now seriously damaged the African terracotta market in the U.S. The only exception to this might be the modest market created for the large contemporary pots, primarily originating in West and North Africa. I see no connection between these very different markets.
Atwood's article certainly got me thinking again about Nok and terracotta in general. The Met's new exhibition, “Heroic Africans: Legendary Leaders, Iconic Sculptures,” has opened to rave reviews. Included in this exhibition is the Minneapolis Institute of Arts well known Ife head. While I have no pretensions that I am an expert on Ife terracottas, I have always been interested in this object as a stylistically atypical example of the corpus. I have never seen any data one way or another, but expect that a highly regarded, experienced African curator like Jan-Lodewijk Grootaers, Ph.D. and the MIA Director Kaywin Feldman, past President of the Association of Art Museum Directors, have done their homework on this sculpture. No doubt they have cat scans and expert opinions that would satisfy any concerns from their museum patrons or the exhibition organizers at the Metropolitan Museum in New York..
Frank Willett, who died several years ago, was the foremost expert in the area and compiled a CD entitled “The Art of Ife”, which catalogs this particular Ife head as T731. Willettdexter side....The neck shows slight grooves where the coils have been smoothed. Cracks can be seen that have been well repaired to hide them on the outside. The front of the neck is a separate sherd extended artificially on the sinister side to join it to another sherd. The back of the head has been broken into several sherds, including the dexter side of the head over the ear. There appear to be about eleven re-attached sherds. In view of the otherwise excellent state of preservation of the head, it seems likely that it was shattered in finding. The top of the back of the head is missing as are the lower parts of the back and both sides of the neck. Samples have been removed from the edge of the neck medially and in the edge of the hair at the broken edge at the top of the head, also medially. These produced a TL date of BP 520±20%, i.e. c. AD 1370 to 1580.”
It seems that Willett is suggesting the face displays an atypical lack of symmetry. Putting my Pre-Columbian hat on makes me wonder whether the artist lost it in this area or that maybe the face had been restored. Willett has stated that the back and sides of the head and the front of neck were broken. I guess it is possible that the face is as pristine on the inside as it is on the outside, but logically it seems unlikely. I certainly don't know; however, when an object is offered in such an important public forum it seems like a fair question to ask. If I were asked to appraise this object I would immediately get a cat scan of the face and then take multiple samples around the face for TL testing. That’s a fantasy though, and this will be one more rhetorical question concerning objects that have been blessed.