NEW YORK – Officials with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement's (ICE) Homeland Security Investigations (HSI) 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 (CBP) 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 recovery of these statues is a testament to the collaboration between HSI and our United States and foreign law enforcement partners who devote countless resources to protect the cultural heritage of all nations," said James T. Hayes Jr., special agent in charge of HSI New York. "Smugglers who thrive on greed place very little interest in the preservation of cultural property when they plunder ancient artifacts to sell to the highest bidder."
"Today we are celebrating the fruitful collaboration of all our agencies in protecting the cultural heritage and history of Nigeria," said Gary Hartwig, special agent in charge of HSI Chicago. "The antiquities we are returning are remarkable treasures of untold historical significance that belong with their rightful owners. HSI will continue to investigate and seize national treasures of other countries that find their way to the Unites States under false pretenses."
"On behalf of the government and people of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the consulate general, New York, would like to seize the opportunity of this ceremony to, once again, convey its appreciation for this friendly gesture, from its American friends," said Consul General Habib Baba Habu, consulate general of Nigeria in New York. "The ten figurines and one carved tusk will be returned to the national museum for display, at a ceremony to be presided by the minister of foreign affairs."
"CBP is extremely proud to have played an important role in returning these valuable national treasures to their rightful owners," said Robert E. Perez, director of CBP's New York Field Operations. "CBP working with HSI demonstrates the continuing resolve of law enforcement in the United States to address illegal trafficking in stolen artifacts."
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.
HSI plays a leading role in criminal investigations that involve the illegal importation and distribution of cultural property, including the illicit trafficking of cultural property, especially objects that have been reported lost or stolen. The HSI Office of International Affairs, through its 71 attaché offices in 47 countries, works closely with foreign governments to conduct joint investigations, when possible.
HSI specially trained investigators, assigned to both domestic and international offices, partner with governments, agencies and experts to protect cultural antiquities. They also train investigators from other nations and agencies on investigating crimes involving stolen property and art, and how to best enforce the law to recover these items when they emerge in the marketplace.
Since 2007, HSI has repatriated more than 2,500 items to more than 23 countries.