Customs officials have been busy with stolen antiquities in recent days. Here’s a release about the return of looted art of Nigeria:

HSI returns stolen and looted antiquities to Nigeria

NEW YORK – Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations returned 11 stolen and looted cultural artifacts – 10 Nok statues and one carved tusk – to the government of Nigeria today at the HSI New York office. The items were seized by HSI special agents and U.S. Customs and Border Protection officers after the importers surrendered the artifacts.

 HSI special agents at John F. Kennedy International Airport (JFK) first learned of the stolen Nok statues in April 2010 after receiving information from French customs officials. French authorities had detained a shipment of what they identified as Nok statues from Nigeria that were destined for the United States. French officials alerted HSI and CBP who met the shipments when they arrived in New York. HSI Chicago had also previously seized two Nok statues and a carved ivory tusk at Chicago O’Hare International Airport.

After an investigation with assistance from French authorities, the Louvre in Paris, Interpol and the International Council of Museums, HSI special agents determined the Nok statues were in fact antiquities and not just handicrafts and personal effects as was diclosed on the importation documents provided to U.S. authorities. 

The Nok statues are of great importance to the people of Nigeria.  The Nok culture civilization was discovered in 1928.  In 1943, the first terracotta discoveries were accidentally unearthed at a level of 24 feet in an alluvial tin mine in the vicinity of the village of Nok, near the Jos Plateau region, which lies in the central part of Nigeria in West Africa. 

As a result of natural erosion and deposition, Nok terracottas were scattered at various depths throughout the Sahel grasslands, making it difficult to date and classify the mysterious artifacts.  Luckily, two archaeological sites, Samun Dukiya and Taruga, were found containing Nok art that had remained unmoved.  Radiocarbon and thermo-luminescence tests narrowed the sculptures’ age down to between 2,000 and 2,500 years ago, making them some of the oldest in West Africa.

Most historians and archaeologists agree that the Nok culture spanned a period of time between 1000 B.C. until its sudden disappearance sometime around 500 A.D.  The artifacts found seem to be the forerunners to styles utilized by later African culture in the area.

 Nigeria instituted laws to control the export of Nok statues as they posed a significant loss of cultural heritage from the country.  In 1979, the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments passed Decree N°77, terracottas, which states that only accredited agents in Nigeria may buy or sell antiquities.  It also empowers Nigerian customs officials to detain any items that are found during export inspections that they believe to be cultural antiquities.