Looted Benin Artworks: Before the West Returns Them (I)

by Bob MajiriOghene Etemiku
benin artwork

Two occurrences under consideration, first in 2019 in Nigeria and France in 2017 include criticism which assailed the Muhammadu Buhari government announcement that it is considering two bills – the social media and hate speech bills. While it appeared that the bills were sponsored by Senators and Members of Parliament, MPs, at the highest law-making bodies in Nigeria, it was as a matter of fact that the bills were mooted by the executive branch of the Nigerian government.  One of the ministers, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, responsible for Information and Culture, had flown both kites[1], and were blown hither and tither by strong criticism.

The second occurrence was the announcement in 2017 by the French Government that it had set up a body to advice it concerning the return of works of Art stolen from Africa during the colonial period. The two scholars were Felwine Sarr and Benedicte Savoy. The most art looted from Nigeria took place in 1897.  At that year, the British invaded Benin City, (presently in Edo State Nigeria) and carted away about 4000 works of art, most of which are scattered in British, French, German and American Museums till date. These works of art are said to represent the intellectual template of the Benin people and the cultural and traditional beliefs of one of the most ancient of civilizations[2].

What comes off at once from connecting these two seemingly unrelated issues is that the Nigerian government does not appear to have a plan for the return of those art works to Nigeria, and especially at a time when there is strong interest by France and Germany to return looted art works.  The Buhari administration seems to focus on issues quiet unrelated to the development and promotion of culture as drivers of development.

Historians who have juxtaposed the value of looted Benin artefacts with those from Egypt claim that while some artefacts[3] moved from Egypt to museums in the UK and to most of Europe were moved under close supervision and cooperation between Egyptian curators and international archeologists, those removed from Benin Kingdom were looted via the punitive massacre of the Benin people in1897.

Central to determining the pecuniary value of the more than 4,000 pieces of art works from Benin City is the account in Benin Kings & Rituals…Court Arts from Nigeria[4]. This work highlighted the journey of just one of the stolen pieces, the Hornblower[5], said to be one among the ten known to exist worldwide.

According to this account, this piece which illegally became the property of one of the participants of the 1897 expedition, was sold to Foster & Foster at a London auction by Ratton on July 16th 1931 for 220 pounds and 10 shillings. Ratton thereafter resold the Hornblower piece to Carre for 40,000 francs, who again sold it for a profit to a Parisian art lover for an undisclosed amount in September 1935. This famous piece surfaced at the New York exhibitions of 1941 and 1943, and was eventually acquired by a Robert Sturgis Ingersoll, a Philadelphia art collector upon whose death the Benin Hornblower piece was auctioned by Sotheby’s in London on July 8th, 1974. At that 1974 London auction, the Benin Hornblower was sold for 85,000 pounds, ‘‘a price three times as high as any other ‘primitive art’  object, as Souren Melikian declared in the International Herald Tribune’s edition of the following day – to an unknown private collection…’[6]. At one point in the odyssey of the Hornblower piece, the Parisian who had bought the piece gave it back to Carre as a ‘loan’ for an exhibition at ‘Knoedler’, thereby introducing the ‘loaning’ concept of art works to original owners of stolen works of art.

But the essence of these works of art transcend their monetary worth. At that massacre of the Benin people in 1897, art works were not the only items taken away. The Benin monarch, Oba Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, representative of the persona of the Benin Kingdom, and owner of those art works, was publicly humiliated – his captors made him kneel three times before Ralf Moor, Consul General of the Niger Coast Protectorate before they exiled him to Calabar in chains, excising from the Benin people forever something of the core of their mores, traditions and cultural values. As representative of the Benin persona, and taken away together with pieces of art works that the Benin people identify with their source  – the revered Omo No Ba –  it is virtually impossible to estimate the actual cost which the event of 1897 exacted on the Benin people. Long after the slave trade ended on 25th March 1807, and even up till 1811 with its illegal underground activities, most Benin who were not killed were captured and sold off into that illegal and underground trade, therefore opening up a healing international injury on the conscience of humanity.   

[7]Curators have described the loss of those looted art works and those either killed or sold into slavery as representative of ‘court life’, and who assisted with supporting the godlike king and history of the powerful Benin Empire.  The looted pieces and custodians of the guilds that produced these works of art are said to have ‘no parallel in African art’, and are archetypical representations of key activities that have archival properties for the Benin people.

Prior to 2017 when Emmanuel Macron, French President commissioned the Savoy-Sarr  body to look to returning stolen African Art works, the idea to ‘loan’ Nigeria these works of art had already gained traction. Seeking a mascot for the second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture, FESTAC[8], in 1977, the Nigerian government requested Britain to ‘loan’ it one of the 4,000 pieces[9] it had looted from Oba Ovonramwen’s palace in 1897. But the British government turned down the request, sparking some debate over the propriety of ‘loaning’ the owners of the works of art what belongs to them. Rotinwa[10] (2019), has detailed further efforts made by and on behalf of Nigeria to retrieve these art works from the British museum.

  • Bernie Grant, a black British-Guyanan MP, of the African Reparations Movement in 1997. Grant was said to have taken his case to the return of the African artifacts but was ignored.
  • Prince Adun Akenzua in 2000, brother of the former Oba of Benin, Oba Erediuwa, took his case to the British House of Commons, for the return of the looted artefacts without result.
  • Nigeria House of Representatives passed a resolution asking Chief Olusegun Obasanjo to formally request that the British museum return the works in 2002;
  • an initiative of the Nigeria National Council for Museums and Monuments and the Museum of Ethnology , Vienna, also known as the Benin Dialogue Group, 2007, and finally,
  • Efforts of the current Benin King, Omo Noba Nedo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II. Bearing in mind the argument from the British that the artefacts may not have a suitable abode when they are eventually returned, there are reports of a concerted effort between the Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, and the government of Edo state to build a museum right inside the palace of the Oba, the origin of the artefacts.

These attempts were to set the tone for the terms of reference for a resolution over the lingering questions of provenance, a permanent or temporary restitution of the stolen works of Art from Benin and West Africa, especially from the welter of agitations over the complicity of the West as accomplices in the underdevelopment of most of Africa.

The Savoy-Sarr report submitted that instead of seeing restitution of works of art as an opportunity for ‘territorial separation or isolationism of cultural property’, the report held that a permanent relocation of the stolen works of art from Africa sets the standard towards a ‘broader and more inclusive universalism that includes Africa[11]. The Report also declared that (i) the products of colonization are the fruits of crime, and every taking from Africa during the period of colonization is illegitimate and (ii) established that the greater legacy of colonization is economic inequality, political instability and humanitarian tragedies.

Among its recommendations – such as permanent restitution of illegally acquired cultural objects of significance, effective education initiatives via knowledge of African heritage that would target the younger generations, joint research and training by participating museums, exchange of temporary exhibitions – that that suggests an international cultural cooperation with access to research, archives & documentation for people in Africa or in the Diaspora which can bridge the wide gaps between Africa & the West relating  & wider preservation of African culture[12]  is relevant to this discourse.

Local cultural contexts 

In an interview he granted a German newspaper, one of the two persons who submitted the report to Emmanuel Macron, Felwine Sarr said: ‘we want to advise the African participants (on restitution efforts) to steer the discussion in their countries. There is already a place at the museum for black civilization in Dakar. The infrastructures vary across countries but the museums as institutions are similar’. 

  • Government seeming disinterest in return of looted Nigerian art.

The Nigerian government seemingly has not demonstrated interest enough to steering debate towards the repatriation of, and restitution for looted arts. As Nigerian military head of State in 1976, Olusegun Obasanjo requested Britain to return one of the pieces looted from Benin, the Idia Iyoba (Queen Mother) piece even on loan as mascot for the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture FESTAC, 1977. 

The British turned down the request on a somewhat curious excuse that the requested item was fragile and unable to stand the rigors of international travel. Even though that refusal led to the production of a replica, several others which are scattered all over the world cannot be accounted for and replicated like the Idia Iyoba bust. International and local observers were however shocked that instead of putting together a body to work with the British government on the repatriation of Nigeria’s looted art works,  Chief Olusegun Obasanjo launched a massive campaign against a local cultural critic and Afrobeat musician, Fela Anikulakpo Kuti, an assault which blighted the legacy of FESTAC 77.

Again in 2002, the Nigerian Parliament, passed a resolution asking Chief Olusegun Obasanjo, as civilian and democratically elected president after his time as military head of state in the 70s to formally request that the British museum return the Benin stolen works of Art. That request was rebuffed by Chief Olusegun Obasanjo.

You may also like

Leave a Comment