The Afo-A-Kom is far from the world's greatest piece of art—or even Africa's. A 5-ft. 2½in. image of a king, it is rather crudely carved in iroko wood, the torso covered with sackcloth stitched with reddish-brown beads, the face masked in copper. But the Afo-A-Kom (literally, the Kom thing) is sacred to the approximately 30,000 people who constitute the Kom kingdom, a tribal enclave in the northwestern part of the Federal Republic of Cameroon.
Last week this rather ungainly sculpture caused a flurry of diplomatic exchanges and created an uproar that stretched from the elegant salons of New York's art world all the way back to Laikom, the capital of Kom.
For it seemed that the Afo-A-Kom had been stolen in late 1966 from a storage hut near the royal palace and smuggled out of the kingdom. According to the New York Times, the statue was mysteriously spirited away by thieves using a highly organized system of logistics that included Land Rovers, trucks and airplanes. When he realized his loss, Law Aw, the King (also called the Fon) of Kom was thought to be "psychologically killed," and soon died.
The King's nephew, suspected of complicity in the disappearance of the statue, was ostracized, and, according to one account, nearly everyone in the country took to quarreling.
The new Fon, Bobe-Meya, had a new Afo-A-Kom carved and displayed, as is customary, with female figures representing his wife and mother. But the new sculpture was no substitute for the old. According to Sandra Blakeslee, a former Times reporter living in western Africa: "There has been no peace in the kingdom since the statue was taken out."
Then a few months ago, a catalogue of a show called "Royal Art of Cameroon," mounted at Dartmouth College, reached Evan Schneider, a longtime Kom scholar and a member of the Peace Corps in Cameroon. There, resplendent in full color on the cover, was the lost Afo-A-Kom. It had been lent to Dartmouth by its new owner, Aaron Furman, a respected Manhattan dealer in primitive art, and it was reportedly on sale for $60,000.
Beyond Money. It was no surprise in Cameroon that the statue was in the U.S. (The U.S. embassy had been asked to discuss the matter with the Cameroon government in August.) But the new publicity about the sculpture caused a stir. Last week Thaddeus Nkuo, first secretary of Cameroon in Washington and himself a Kom, demanded its return, explaining: "It is beyond money, beyond value. It is the heart of the Kom, what unifies the tribe, the spirit of the nation, what holds us together. It is not an object of art for sale, and could not be."
Embattled Dealer Furman retreated behind his lawyer but declared that he was "not inclined to return it or to sell it back." He had bought it for a five-figure sum from an "impeccable dealer," probably in France, though Furman declined to say. His story, as reported by the Times, had the intricacy of plausibility. He had first been told by the go-between that the statue was being offered for sale by the King of Kom. Furman paid for it, it was delivered to him some time in 1966, then he was told that the King had changed his mind. Says Furman: "I shipped it back, and my check to my agent was torn up. That was the last I heard of it for six months. I got another letter saying that the King had cooled off and was in a position to sell again. Then I bought it."
Was the Afo-A-Kom stolen? Or, as the organizers of the Dartmouth show suggested, was it sold by the King or someone in his family? This second theory was supported by the fact that smaller "sacred objects" have been sold off by past Fons of Kom in exchange for such commodities as zinc roofing and a Land Rover. Cameroon's Ambassador to the U.S., Francois-Xavier Tchoungui, thinks otherwise: "We cannot avoid the fact that the Afo-A-Kom was stolen," he says. "We cannot believe that a chief could sell his own totem."
In this specific instance, the question scarcely matters, since with all the diplomatic hassle, the statue may well be returned to Kom, perhaps with compensation to Furman. Even so, it will leave moot the questions that more and more agitate the art world: Can or should even a legitimate owner sell an art object outside his own country if it is declared a national treasure, and can an art dealer legitimately buy it, in good faith, for mere cash?