September 26, 2022

This makes me ashamed to live in LA. A gallery owner here has been going to Kenya and stealing statues that are the equal to our tombstones from people’s land and selling them to museums, art dealers, art conneiseurs, and galleries across the nation. We’re thinking of picketing the bastard.
The Case of the Stolen Statues: Solving a Kenyan Mystery
By MARC LACEY – New York Times
Published: April 16, 2006
KAKWAKWANI, Kenya — Out behind Kache Kalume Mwakiru’s homestead, not far from a mango tree, is a patch of dirt that figures into an international struggle over pilfered cultural artifacts.
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Ill fortune has befallen the family ever since, Ms. Mwakiru said. She cites her husband’s death two years after the theft, the failure of the family’s crops and assorted illnesses she and others have suffered. Such are the powers associated with vigango, which are put up to appease the spirits but have also become popular among Western collectors of African art.
The theft of vigango is not uncommon. Four vigango were snatched in February from a homestead not far from this coastal village, about an hour’s drive from Mombasa. But what is so unusual about the theft at the Mwakiru place more than 20 years ago is that the vigango have been traced to the United States, and at least one will be returning home soon from an Illinois museum. An American anthropologist, Monica L. Udvardy, of the University of Kentucky, played a major role in unfolding the mystery. Ms. Udvardy interviewed Kalume Mwakiru, Ms. Mwakiru’s husband, in 1985 as part of her field research on the Mijikenda people.
She also took a photo of Mr. Mwakiru standing proudly in front of his two vigango, sculptured from hard wood into a rough human form and adorned with strips of cloth. When Ms. Udvardy went back to Mr. Mwakiru’s home several months later to give him a copy of the photograph, he told her of the theft and asked for help in getting the statues back.
Ms. Udvardy searched tourist shops and hotels where vigango were on sale at the time for several hundred dollars apiece, but she came up empty. It was not until 1999 that she came across one — at a conference.
She was at the annual meeting of the African Studies Association, in Philadelphia, when a participant, Linda L. Giles, showed slides of some of the African artifacts at the museum at Illinois State University.
“I stopped her presentation and said, ‘Wait, wait, go back to that slide,’ ” Ms. Udvardy recalled. There was a match.
Ms. Udvardy and Ms. Giles then began studying how such statues find their way to the United States, where they sell for up to $5,000. The researchers tracked down 294 vigango at 19 American museums, including Mr. Mwakiru’s other statue. That one was at Hampton University Museum in Virginia, which had the largest collection of vigango, 99 in all.
They traced most to a single art dealer, Ernie Wolfe III, a prominent collector of African artifacts and the owner of the Ernie Wolfe Gallery in Los Angeles.
Mr. Wolfe said in an e-mail message that he was “horrified and deeply saddened” to learn that two vigango he had purchased from a souvenir shop along the Kenyan coast were now said to be stolen.
In February, the National Museums of Kenya sent letters to the two American museums seeking the statues’ return to the Mwakiru homestead. Officials at the Illinois State Museum, in Springfield, to which a collection of 38 vigango was transferred from Illinois State University in 2001, have agreed to do so.
“We realized it was removed illegally,” said Michael Wiant, an anthropologist at the Illinois State Museum. “The answer was an easy one.”
Hampton University Museum is still studying the matter. “We’re looking into it,” said Mary Lou Hultgren, the curator.
What is at stake is not just the fate of the two statues from Kakwakwani but also what should be done with other vigango that might have been stolen.
“This is a very complicated affair,” Mr. Wiant said. “The question is, ‘What do you do when you have 37 items that were perhaps obtained inappropriately?’ We should have a dialogue. We should address this vigorously.”
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