Antique African ceramics disputed in Switzerland

June 2009 -

The exposition African Terra Cotta: a Millenary Heritage, on display until 15 September 2009 in the Barbier-Mueller-museum in Geneva, has been targeted in a campaign against art theft. Eric Huysecom, professor of archaeology with the universities of Geneva and Bamako, claims that the ceramics on display were discovered in Mali in 1977 and illegally exported. In his view, the objects are too scarce to have been accidentally found.

Huysecom discussed this subject in a column in the Swiss daily newspaper Le Tamps. Various art experts, including Hamady Bocoun from Senegal and Marie-Claude Morand, chair of the Swiss department of the International Council of Museums, co-signed the column. Collector and curator Jean Paul Barbier-Mueller and the other individuals who compiled the exposition are rejecting this criticism. They claim that only a small number of the finds were obtained illegally.

According to Huysecom, there are loopholes in Swiss law on cultural property that make it possible to import works of art acquired illegally. The law was effectuated in 2005 and does not apply to art objects obtained prior to its effectuation. The law is also based on bilateral agreements, but none such agreements were established with any African country south of the Sahara. Switzerland signed the Unidroit treaty against illegal transportation of art in 1996 but has not yet ratified it. That treaty is more strict than the 1970 UNESCO treaty that, for the record, Switzerland did not ratify until 2003.

Museum director Boris Wastiau contests the accusation that he used his scientific expertise in the catalogue of the exposition to "launder" the collection. Wastiau believes the publication of the collection is a positive step towards initiating the discussion on cultural property rights. He says the museum is willing to return any art obtained illegally. According to Wastiau, the museum is more like a 'temporary home' for such collections.