Christie & # 39; s auction house went ahead with a sale of statues that, according to Nigerian museum officials, were stolen during the country's civil war in the 1960s.
Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments demanded that Christie & # 39; s stop selling the artifacts, which were collected by an art dealer and advisor to the late French President Jacques Chirac.
But at Monday's auction in Paris, the pair of "museum-quality" Igbo statues sold for 212,500 euros ($ 239,000). Meanwhile, a "large statue of Urhobo", estimated at 900,000 euros ($ 1 million), has not been sold.
The three pieces from southern Nigeria were among a series of "African masterpieces" that, according to Christie & # 39; s, came from an "important European private collection" that they declined to name.
However, the head of the National Museum in Benin, Nigeria, said the objects were stolen during the Biafran war that spread in the late 1960s and appealed to Christie & # 39; s "and other auction houses to stop the process immediately".
"They need to repatriate these works and pay compensation to us, in the interest of natural justice," said Theophilus Umogbai.
Chika Okeke-Agulu, a Princeton scholar who also warned earlier this month that the objects were looted, said the pieces were "an important part of Nigeria's art and cultural heritage".
"Nations and societies value the examples of the great art and culture of their ancestors," he told Al Jazeera.
"So, for this set of objects stolen from eastern Nigeria during the civil war to be on sale, when we should discuss the terms of their return, because they were illegally removed from Nigeria, that's why I initiated the repatriation request."
Okeke-Agulu said the objects were taken through "an act of violence" and should not be sold. An online petition with the hashtags #BlackArtsMatter and #MyHeritageMatters collected more than 3,000 signatures demanding that the auction be stopped.
Christie & # 39; s refused to interrupt the sale, saying the objects had previously been sold at a major international art fair.
In a statement to the Associated Press news agency, the auction house said: "These objects are being sold legally, having been publicly displayed and sold in the past few decades before Christie's involvement."
While Christie & # 39; s said he recognized the "subtle and complex debates around cultural property", said that the public sale of objects like these must go ahead to stop the black market from flourishing.
He said there was "verifiable documented provenance" that the objects were removed from Nigeria before 2000, as required by law.
Christie & # 39; s said the objects were probably sold by local agents before being sold to Jacques Kerchache, the French art dealer, in Cameroon or Paris.
"We believe that this type of statue would not have been sold without the agreement of the local chiefs / leaders."
But Mallam Abdu Aliyu, of the Nigeria Museum Commission, said he was convinced that the objects were taken illegally.
"We have been calling for the repatriation of these works to no avail for years. We have negotiated through dialogue and diplomacy that these works be returned to their original owners," he told AFP news agency.
"We have written a letter of protest to Christie & # 39; s … and we are going to involve Christie & # 39; s and museums in the UK, Germany and other nations where our artifacts were supposed to be taken."
The repatriation of works of art and religious objects looted by European powers during the colonial era became a political hot potato, with several African and Asian nations demanding the return of treasures.
French President Emmanuel Macron caused an earthquake in the world of museums in 2019, ordering the return of 26 treasures to Benin, which borders Nigeria.
A report he commissioned also recommended returning objects removed without consent during the colonial period, if their countries of origin requested them.
Al Jazeera and news agencies