Nigeria failed to halt a Paris sale of sacred statues Monday which museum officials said were stolen during the country's bloody civil war.
Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments demanded that auction house Christie's stop the sale of the artefacts, which were collected by a former art advisor of the late French president Jacques Chirac.
While a pair of "museum quality" Igbo statues went under the hammer for 212,500 euros, a "major Urhobo statue" estimated at 900,000 euros ($1 million) failed to sell.
The three pieces from southern Nigeria were among a number of "African masterpieces" that Christie's said came from an "important European private collection" they declined to name.
But the head of the National Museum in Nigeria's Benin City said that objects were stolen and appealed to Christie's "and other auction houses to halt the process immediately.
"They have to repatriate such works and pay compensation to us in the interest of natural justice," Theophilus Umogbai said.
The auction house refused to stop the sale, saying the objects had been previously sold at a major international art fair.
"All objects in this sale were fully compliant with all applicable legal frameworks," it said in a statement to AFP.
Links to Jacques Chirac
Christie's said that the object came from a collection amassed by Jacques Kerchache, a French art dealer who played a key role in founding the Quai Branly museum of indigenous art in Paris.
He also advised Chirac -- a passionate collector of Asian and African art -- who later pushed through the museum which since 2016 also bears his name.
"Christie's acknowledges there are nuanced and complex debates around cultural property and history," the auction house added.
But "we feel it is important that the legitimate and legal market is upheld."
It said that there was "verifiable documented provenance" that the objects were taken out of Nigeria before 2000, as the law required.
Christie's said the objects were most likely traded by local agents before being sold to Kerchache in Cameroon or in Paris.
"We believe that this type of statue would not have been sold without the agreement of local chiefs/leaders."
But Mallam Abdu Aliyu, of Nigeria's museums commission, said they were convinced the objects were taken illegally during the Biafran war that raged between Lagos and the secessionist state in the south of the country in the late 1960s.
Political hot potato
"For years, we have clamoured for the repatriation of these works to no avail. We have been negotiating through dialogue and diplomacy to have these works brought back to their original owners," he told AFP.
"We have written a letter of protest to Christie's... and are going to engage Christie's and museums in Britain, Germany and other nations where our artefacts had been allegedly taken."
The repatriation of artworks and religious objects looted by European powers during the colonial era has become a political hot potato, with several African and Asian nations demanding the return of treasures.
French President Emmanuel Macron caused an earthquake in the museum world in 2019 by ordering the return of 26 treasures to Benin, which borders Nigeria.
A report he commissioned also recommended the return of objects removed without consent during the colonial period if their countries of origin asked for them.
© Agence France-Presse