Robin Pogrebin has an interesting article in today’s New York Times on a decision to return 9 wooden grave objects to Kenya. A ceremony at the UN yesterday marked the decision. They had been purchased by Lewis and Jay allen and were on display in their Park Avenue apartment. Their daughter decided to return them to Kenya after learning of their significance to Kenyans. It took her four months to arrange for their return. That seems to be an underconsidered problem with many source nations: they need to make it easy for individuals to repatriate artifacts to ensure they aren’t subject to criminal liability and that there are places to hold the objects.
It seems the statues are used to decorate graves, and often become part of ongoing ceremonies, discussions and celebrations. It would be as if someone took the headstone from your grandmother’s grave and displayed it in their living room. The clear implication is that all vigango are stolen in one form or another. They are valued by collectors in the US, Europe and Japan because they are beautiful works of african art, but they may not know they were meant as grave decoration. This strongly indicates all exported vigango were stolen.
But some US museums have them in their collection, and are loathe to return them. The ethical and legal grounds for their return is very strong, the only thing missing from a repatriation would seem to be an initiative by the African source nations.