Netherlands returns Ife terracotta head to Nigeria

A unique and rare terracotta head from Ife, Nigeria, intercepted by Dutch Customs at Schiphol airport in 2018, has been returned to Nigeria by the Dutch authorities.

Afbeelding van een terracotta beeld uit de Ife-cultuur. Het beeld toont een kop dat kenmerkend is voor de IFE-cultuur met amandelvormige ogen en verticale groeven.
Photo: terracotta head from Ifé area

The Secretary-General of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science, Marjan Hammersma, today handed over the object to the Charge d’Affaires of the Embassy of Nigeria in The Hague, Mr Kabiru Musa. The Ife terracotta head is the first formal return made 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 terracotta head, which is approximately 16 cm 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. It is clear from the style of the object that it originates from Ife, Nigeria. The artefact was discovered by Dutch Customs in a package addressed to a Dutch private individual. The accompanying import documents turned out to be incorrect. Nigerian authorities confirmed the authenticity of the head and formally requested its return.

Ife terracotta

Ife terracotta objects are vulnerable cultural heritage and therefore subject to legal protection. Trade in these objects is prohibited. Artefacts of this kind may be unearthed during archaeological excavations or when foundations for a new building are being dug, but are sometimes stolen from museums or illegally dug up and exported. Terracotta artefacts found in Ife date back to the 12th to 15th centuries. It is believed that they were used in altar rituals or as grave goods. The artistic and traditional characteristics of the item discovered in the Netherlands, in combination with the patterns in the face, are typical of Ife heads. Objects of this quality are exceedingly rare.

Cooperation between the Information and Heritage Inspectorate and Dutch Customs

For the last 30 years the Information and Heritage Inspectorate has been working closely with Dutch Customs to supervise and monitor the import and export of cultural goods. Thanks to the experience they have gained, and the joint Enforcement Plan, the Dutch authorities have become increasingly adept at intercepting vulnerable cultural goods from third countries. Other recent cases include the interception of archaeological objects identified and returned to Ukraine. A number of cases are still under investigation.

1970 UNESCO Convention

The Netherlands became 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 on 1 July 2009. Nigeria ratified the Convention in 1972. The Convention, which fights the illegal trafficking of cultural property, requires States Parties to cooperate in the monitoring of import and export of cultural goods. States Parties must also take appropriate steps to recover and return objects that have been illegally imported or exported, or where illegal transfer of ownership has taken place.

This year UNESCO, its States Parties and affiliated institutions are celebrating the 50th anniversary of the 1970 Convention.