Book Review

The looted bronze artefacts of Benin


The Benin Bronze from the Oba-era. The state governor has big plans for the bronze, once returned. PHOTO | BBC



  • Early this week I read that Iraq had reclaimed 17,000 looted artifacts, its largest ever repatriation.
  • It is a victory in a global effort by countries to press Western institutions to return culturally vital artifacts.
  • This reminded me of the push to repatriate the famed Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.

Early this week I read that Iraq had reclaimed 17,000 looted artifacts, its largest ever repatriation.

The cuneiform tablets and other objects had been held by the Museum of the Bible, founded by the family that owns Hobby Lobby craft store chain, and by Cornell University, an Ivy League university.

The repatriation of so many objects rounds out a remarkable chapter in the story of a country so ravaged by decades of conflict and war that its very history was pulled out of the ground by antiquities thieves and sold abroad, ending up on display in other countries’ museums.

It is a victory in a global effort by countries to press Western institutions to return culturally vital artifacts. This reminded me of the push to repatriate the famed Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.

The Benin Bronzes are not actually from the country of Benin; they originate from the ancient Kingdom of Benin, now in southern Nigeria. They are also not made of bronze. The various artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes include carved elephant tusks and leopard statues, even wooden heads.

The most famous pieces are 900 brass plaques, dating mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries, once nailed to pillars in Benin’s royal palace.

There are at least 3,000 items scattered worldwide, maybe thousands more. Nobody is entirely sure.

You can find Benin Bronzes in many of the West’s great museums, including London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They are to be found in smaller museums too. The Lehman, Rockefeller, Ford and, de Rothschild families have owned some. So did Pablo Picasso.

Their importance was appreciated in Europe from the moment they were first seen there in the 1890s. Curators at the British Museum compared them at the time to the best of Italian and Greek sculptures.

Today, the artifacts still leave people dumbstruck. Neil Macgregor, the British Museum former director, has called them “great works of art” and “triumphs in metal casting”.

But how did these precious works of art find their way to the Western world?

On 2 January 1897, James Phillips, a British official, set out from the coast of Nigeria to visit the oba, or ruler of the Kingdom of Benin.

It is said that he took a handful of colleagues with him to persuade the oba to stop interrupting British trade.

Previously he had written to the colonial administrators seeking to overthrow the oba, but he was turned down.

When Phillips was told that he could not see the oba because a religious ceremony was taking place, he went anyway.

He did not come back.

Within a month, Britain sent 1,200 troops to Benin to take revenge for the killing of Phillips.

On 18 February, the British Army took Benin City in a violent raid. The western media was full of colonial jubilation over the event, but none mentioned that the British troops used the opportunity to raid the city of its precious artifacts.

At least one British soldier was “wandering around with a chisel and hammer, knocking off brass figures and collecting all sorts of rubbish as loot,” Captain Herbert Sutherland Walker, a British officer wrote in his diary.

“All the stuff of any value found in the King’s palace and surrounding houses, has been collected,” he added.

Within months, much of the bounty was in England. The artifacts were given to museums, sold at auction, or kept by soldiers for their mantlepieces.

Four items, including two ivory leopards, were given to Queen Victoria. Soon, many artifacts ended up in elsewhere in Europe and the United States.

“We were once a mighty empire,” said Charles Omorodion, 62, an accountant who grew up in Benin City but now lives in Britain and has campaigned to have the artifacts returned from British museums.

“There were stories told about who we were, and these objects showed our strength, our identity,” he said.

He said that seeing the Benin Bronzes in the world’s museums filled him with pride, as they showed visitors how great the Benin Kingdom had been. But he also added that he felt frustration, bitterness and anger about their being kept outside his country. “It’s not just that they were stolen,” he said.

“It’s that you can see them being displayed and sold at a price.”

Benin City has been calling for the return of its artifacts for decades. But a key moment came in the 1970s when the organisers of a major festival of Black art and culture in Lagos, Nigeria, asked the British Museum for one prized item: a 16th century ivory mask of a famous oba’s mother.

They wanted to borrow the work to serve as a centrepiece of the 1977 event, but the British Museum said it was too fragile to travel. Nigerian news media told a different story, reporting that the British Museum had asked for £3 million insurance, a cost so high it was seen as a slap in the face.

Some pieces stolen in the raid have gone back to Nigeria from institutions. In the1950s, the British Museum sold several plaques to Nigeria for a planned museum in Lagos and sold others in the open market, but those are not the free, full-scale returns that people are calling for now.

A few museums appear to be open to returning looted objects permanently, rather than lending them.

In March 2019, the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands launched a policy to consider claims for cultural objects acquired during colonial times. German museums have agreed to a similar policy.

The bottom line for me is that all these were stolen 124 years ago, and they should be returned to their rightful owners without any conditions. In the meantime, many racketeers continue to profit from trading in this lucrative bounty.