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Zimbabwean art back on display after theft

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GILLIAN GOTORA | October 11, 2013 02:51 PM EST | AP

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HARARE, Zimbabwe — HARARE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Six African artifacts stolen from Zimbabwe's main art gallery in 2006 are back on display for the first time in the country since a recovery operation by U.S. law enforcement agents in Poland, the museum curator said Friday.

A man convicted of the theft was jailed after he tried to sell the art to an American buyer who alerted U.S. authorities as part of a sting operation, said National Art Gallery curator Lillian Chaonwa.

The artifacts, which were unveiled Thursday, included two tribal face masks and four intricately carved wooden headrests from the early 20th Century believed to have had mystical properties during sleep. African museums are being targeted by thieves who know there is value in the rarity of the continent's works of art to collectors, Chaonwa said.

"We are assumed to be ignorant and some believe our artifacts can be stolen without any repercussions," she said.

Doreen Sibanda, executive director at the Harare gallery, said Zimbabwe's art lovers were overwhelmed to have the works "back where they belong."

"It is a victory for the small museums in Africa who have long been victims of wanton plunder of heritage and material culture," she said.

Soon after the theft, Chaonwa posted images of the missing works on the Internet and six months later she said the gallery received calls from law enforcement officials that the stolen artifacts had been located in Poland, and an operation for recovery was being planned.

The recovered items were eventually handed over to Zimbabwe's embassy in Germany after the U.S.-led operation retrieved them in Poland, she said.

Investigators intercepted Internet communications in the art world that led to an address in Poland where a dealer was arrested, she said.

Unlike paintings of the world's greatest artists, there is no set commercial value for items steeped in African custom, tradition and history, she said.

Made from hardwood and painstakingly hand-carved with triangular designs and polished to a veneer finish, the head rest signified a personal and spiritual connection to the owner in the local Shona culture. It is said to have provided the link between the living and spiritual realm and a passage to the world of dreams where the sleeper spoke with his ancestors and spirits, according to historical records. The owner was traditionally buried with his individual headrest.

The helmet-like face masks with facial markings and sharp, bared teeth were used at initiation and marriage rituals of both boys and girls in the regional Makonde tribal society, she said.