FBI returns 25-year-old stolen Kenyan sculpture recovered in the US

A bronze hyena sculpture that was stolen in 2013 from a Kenyan artist in Nairobi has been recovered five years later by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) following investigations in the United States. On Wednesday, the FBI Art Crimes Program handed back the 25-year-old piece of rare art to its owner Tim Nicklin in Nairobi.

The sculpture was handed back to the Kenyan artist and his wife Anne at the US Embassy in Nairobi in the presence of outgoing US ambassador Robert Godec, who applauded efforts of the bureau in the recovering the valued cultural artifact. He further recognized the need for cooperation among law enforcement units in various countries in ensuring cultural heritage is protected.

The recovered hyena sculpture. Courtesy: US Embassy Kenya

It is not clear what the value of the artifact which was stolen from a private house in Nairobi’s Runda estate in 2013 is. Nicklin, who has been in the business for over 40 years noted that the artifact was too valuable to attach a price tag to it.

“This is my copy,” he explained. “As a professional artist I am entitled to keep a copy of an art after handing over the original piece to my client. It is even a taboo to sell a copy art let alone placing a price tag on it.

“Most of my art work is cast in additions of ten, but this particular one is very special as it is one of two which was specifically commissioned by a client.”

The piece which was recovered in 2017 in Philadelphia, USA, after a five-year hunt, depicts a hyena carrying the carcass of a warthog. When it was stolen in January 2013, it was shipped to the US for auctioning. The recovery was made after an unknown person sent an email to Nicklin with pictures of the art, asking if he was the owner.

“She sent an email with the pictures asking if I knew them or if they were mine. She said the art was at a display for auction,” said Nicklin.

Following the reported theft of the sculptures at Runda Police Station several months after they went missing, officials alerted Interpol and US Embassy officials. According to FBI agents, the sculpture was intercepted in the US East Coast but no arrest has been made so far.

Still missing. Courtesy: US Embassy Kenya

The sentiments on the value of the recovered art were expressed by his wife Anne Nicklin who described the piece as an inspiration to her bearing in mind the idea of the artifact was generated in 1993 during their honeymoon in the Maasai Mara.

“The hyena is back! This is so nice for us,” said a smiling Anne as she held the sculpture.

Nicklin has been making art for years and his pieces have graced the homes of royalty, corporate captains and celebrities, including former Presidents Mwai Kibaki, and Daniel Arap Moi who bought a lot of his pieces to gift VIP guests, especially visiting heads of state.

The artist’s sculptures, mostly of wildlife in bronze and poly-bronze–a composite of polyester resin and bronze metal filings, can also be seen in the Nairobi National Museum. 

For the FBI agents, the recovery is a milestone in their efforts to address art and cultural property crime cases.

The official Twitter for the US Embassy in Kenya is quoted saying:

Thanks to hard work of FBI Baltimore, FBI Philadelphia and the FBI Art Crime Team, we’re delighted to repatriate stunning artwork stolen in Kenya & recovered in the US to the rightful owner! We’re committed to world’s cultural heritage & fighting transnational crime.

US ambassador Robert Godec receives the recovered artifact at a ceremony in Nairobi.

“It feels good to have it back in Kenya because this will send a signal to those involved in this crime they can’t trade in the art anymore. It is priceless to us,” said Archer. Adding that even though they have not had cases where such art are used in laundering, there are fears they would head to that direction.

It coordinated through the FBI’s Art Theft Program, located at FBI Headquarters in Washington, DC. The FBI established the rapid deployment Art Crime Team in 2004 which investigates art related crime worldwide. It is composed of 16 special agents, each responsible for addressing art and cultural property crime cases in an assigned geographic region.

Since its inception, the Art Crime Team has recovered more than 14,850 items valued at over Ksh 16.5 billion ($165 million). “I want to congratulate the US and Kenya law enforcement units for recovering this particular piece of art—an indication of what we can do when we work together,” Godec said.

Art and cultural property crime which includes theft, fraud, looting, and trafficking across state and international lines, is a looming criminal enterprise with estimated losses in the billions of dollars annually.

The Director of the FBI Art Crime Program Tim Carpenter said further investigations were being conducted to apprehend the culprits involved in the theft as well as recover four more artifacts stolen from the same artist.

FBI special agent Jake Archer of Art Crime Team said, “The art could be in Kenya or the US and we appeal to anyone with information on their whereabouts to volunteer the information to us.”