Netherlands returns ‘stolen’ Ife terracotta head to Nigeria

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In compliance with the 1970 UNESCO Convention mandate prohibiting the illicit import and export of cultural property, the government of The Netherlands has returned a unique terracotta head to the Nigerian embassy in the country.

The rare terracotta head which was believed to be from Ile-Ife in Nigeria was intercepted by Dutch Customs at the Schiphol Airport in 2018 in a package addressed to a Dutch national with forged accompanying import documents.

Nigerian authorities requested that it be returned after confirming its authenticity.

A statement from the Nigerian Embassy signed by Mr Kabiru Musa said the Secretary-General of the Dutch Ministry of Education, Culture and Science handed the terracotta head over to the Nigerian embassy in a ceremony this November.

Mr Musa said that both countries reaffirmed commitment to the provisions of the 1970 UNESCO Convention and to the existing cordial relations between them.

“The Ife terracotta head is the first formal return by The Netherlands to a State party to the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property,” the statement read.

Ife terracotta artefacts are a vulnerable cultural heritage subject to illegal trade, hence their protection.

“The intercepted terracotta object, which is approximately 16cm tall, depicts a girl or young woman with her hair tightly braided in several buns. A bump on the top left side of her head possibly represents an amulet braided into her hair.”

The terracotta artefacts found in Ife date back to between the 12th and 15th century AD and are believed to have been used back then for rituals or as grave goods.

A report by the News Agency of Nigeria (NAN) said the artistic and traditional characteristics of the item recovered from The Netherlands, in addition to the patterns on the face, are typical of Ife heads, and that “objects of this quality are exceedingly rare.”

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