Document Type


Date of Degree

Spring 2010

Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In

Interdisciplinary Studies in Art and Cultural Policy

First Advisor

Christopher D. Roy

First Committee Member

Loyce Arthur

Second Committee Member

Susan White

Third Committee Member

Steve Thunder McGuire

Fourth Committee Member

Pamela White

Fifth Committee Member

Serena Stier


This dissertation surveys the legal and ethical implications of the journey of artworks from Africa to Europe and the United States, beginning with events of the nineteenth century and continuing to the present. It addresses the laws regarding works of art from undeveloped countries, with focus on sub-Saharan Africa. The laws offer insight into what cultural value has been assigned to African art, and the changing laws and ethical norms reflect how African art has been perceived at different times.

This work also discusses to what extent the unique aspects of African art should affect laws protecting the cultural property of sub-Saharan African countries. The dissertation focuses especially on Nigeria, the home of the Kingdom of Benin. It also addresses the legal issues of art from Mali, Cameroon, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. It shows when, where, and how the legal issues for sub-Saharan art are similar to, or different from, the legal issues for other regions.

Three spheres of academic endeavor were pursued in producing this work: African art history, ethics, and legal studies. From the combination of these areas emerges a narrative with a broad variety of events and people. Although the story is told chronologically, it is based on a set of legal and ethical issues. The common issues fall into four categories: plunder and illegal import/export; ethical collection and display; authenticity and forgery; and ownership and copyright.

African artworks found their way to the West in the nineteenth century. There they were considered "savage fetishes" and put in ethnographic museums. In the twentieth century, Western artists such as Picasso were inspired by the aesthetics of African art, and private collectors began acquiring it. Now the world's major art museums display African art.

Since World War II, important international conferences have established an increasing level of protection for cultural property, and thus for African art. International conventions have not prevented illicit art traffic, however. The story of the Afo-A-Kom's return to Cameroon in 1975 illustrates the diverging interests of collectors, museums, the public, and the source country.

Forgery has been an increasing problem for African art throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first century, fed by the high prices that authentic works receive in auction and at galleries. In 1991, for example, Sotheby's sold a forged terra-cotta ram from Mali for more than a quarter of a million dollars.

Today's attitudes and laws concerning African art reflect a complex interplay of historical events and legal changes over time. From the nineteenth century to current times, some progress has been made. Key issues remain from colonial times, however. Despite a growing body of international and national legislation to protect cultural property, African art is still seen by some as a commodity that can be stolen, illegally exported and imported, forged, destroyed or censored.


African Art, Colonialism, Cultural Property, Legal Issues


2, xi, 308 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 294-308).


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Copyright 2010 Mary Rhoads Martin