The memorial totems are increasingly being stolen to fuel Western demand for African art.
Corrupt middlemen contracted by Western art dealers are looting sacred memorial statuettes carved by villagers living along Kenya's coast.
Hundreds of vigango totems have been stolen from rural homesteads and shipped via dealers living in luxury beachside villas to private collectors and art dealers in the United States and Europe, anthropologists have discovered.
Monica Udvardy, an anthropology professor from the University of Kentucky, and Linda Giles, formerly of the University of Illinois, have calculated that at least 400 vigango are held in private collections and in at least 19 museums in the US.
Their findings match earlier investigations by British anthropologist David Parkin, an expert on Kenya's coastal tribes, who noted what he termed "the disturbing acquisition of vigango by art dealers and others in the Western world."
The thefts, researchers and antiquities officials in Kenya say, are being carried out by poor youths who fall prey to the fat wallets and smooth talking of traders operating for overseas collectors. It's part of a booming trade in non-Western cultural property that's now worth $4.5 billion a year worldwide, up from $1 billion a decade ago, according to Interpol estimates.
The vigango are offered at $300 to $800 in Kenya, but studies have found them valued at up to $5,000 in US museum catalogs. However, central to the belief system surrounding vigango is the prohibition against them ever being moved.
"Moving these objects goes against every cultural and spiritual belief of these people," says Ms. Udvardy. "It would be like us stealing our grandfather's tombstone from on top of his grave, or our grandmother's ashes, and selling them."