05.04.2009 Feature Article

How Long Must Nigeria Wait For The Return Of Some Of The Looted Benin Artefacts?

British soldiers of the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897 proudly posing with the looted Benin artefacts.British soldiers of the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897 proudly posing with the looted Benin artefacts.
05.04.2009 LISTEN

In an interview reproduced below from the PUNCH, the Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Dr. Joe. Eboreima gives his views of the question of the restitution of stolen/looted Nigerian artefacts, especially, the Benin Bronzes which the British looted in their infamous invasion of Benin in 1897. The National Commission is the supreme authority on matters relating to monuments and museums in Nigeria and therefore an important body on the question of the restitution of Nigerian artefacts, thousands of which are lying, unused and neglected in European and American museums which have no space for their excessive number of objects..

The exhibition mentioned in the interview is Benin Kings and Rituals - Court Arts from Nigeria ,organized in May 2007 by the Museum for Ethnology, Vienna, the Museum for Ethnology, Berlin, the Art Institute of Chicago and the Musée du Quai Branly, Paris, with the cooperation of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Royal Family of Benin.

The exhibition which started in Vienna went to Paris, Berlin and Chicago but did not go to Nigeria or to any other African country. In the catalogue of the exhibition, the Oba of Benin repeated the request for the return of some of the looted artefacts but in the same catalogue, the directors of the museums which co-operated in organizing the exhibition made it abundantly clear they had no intention of returning any of the stolen artefacts. Moreover, in the International Symposium organized in connection with the exhibition, a further request by the leader of the Benin Royal Delegation was met by a rather arrogant denial by the director of the Ethnology Museum, Vienna. The writer of these lines told the director of the museum what he thought of the very weak arguments the Europeans and Americans present in defence of their continued detention of the stolen/looted African artefacts. The exhibition in Chicago was preceded by protests from Nigerians in Chicago. In addition to revealing the great number of the stolen artefacts in Europe and the USA, the exhibition generated a lot of debate which was reported at many internet sites including Afrikanet , Museum Security and Modern Ghana

Since the end of the exhibition in Chicago, the Royal Family of Benin has reiterated its request in September 2008 for the return of some of the looted artefacts but to date, there has not even been a letter of acknowledgement from the museums, including the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum, Chicago. Readers may wish to consider whether this is the way to treat people with whom one has cooperated in organizing a successful exhibition. Does an African Royal Family deserve anything less than the usual standard of politeness?

The interview mentions the number of the stolen Benin artefacts revealed by the recent exhibition as 1500. It should be borne in mind however that the number of artefacts looted in 1897 is about 3000 or more. The British who stole the artefacts in the first place have never revealed the exact numbers and the British Museum refuses to give any indications. Listed here below are some of the places where Benin bronzes are found and their numbers, as far as we can tell. This is not an attempt to be complete but to give the general reader an idea about how widespread these stolen art objects are. For a complete list, consult Philip J.C. Dark, An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology, 1973, Oxford University Press, London, pp. 78-81. Useful information can be found in Barbara Plankensteiner (Ed) Benin: Kings and Ritual - Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck Publishers, Ghent, 2007.

List of Museums and Number of Benin Bronzes in their Possession

Berlin - Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Chicago - Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400.
Cologne - Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Hamburg - Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden - Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig - Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden - Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London - British Museum 700.
New York - Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford - Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
Philadelphia - University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology 100.
Stuttgart - Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
Vienna - Museum für Völkerkunde 167.

When we add the above figures, we get 3173. However, the important point is not the total figure but to secure the acceptance of the principle of restitution and to start the process.

We learn from the interview that the National Commission “was working through embassies to get artefacts stolen from the county repatriated.” We have very little information on this aspect of the restitution debate. We would however encourage the embassies and the consulates to make their efforts and successes known to the public. This is a matter of public concern and should not be shrouded in secrecy. It can also be said, without fear of contradiction, that quiet diplomacy has so far not been of much help to Nigeria and it is time that light was thrown on Nigeria's effort in this respect. The Nigerian public has a right to know which objects in which European/American cities have been subject of discussion/negotiations and with what results.

We understand that Nigeria may be in discussions with Ethiopia and other African countries on these matters. The experience of Egypt will be very relevant for the success of Zahi Hawass and the Egyptian Supreme Council on Antiquities is enviable. At least 5000 artefacts have been returned to Egypt in the last five years. Zahi Hawass has clearly not restricted himself to quiet diplomacy. An open and energetic approach is likely to yield results. In any case, some 50 years of quiet diplomacy have not brought Nigeria any visible success or returns.

The recent pronouncements of the Director of the British Museum who tries to justify the retention of the Benin Bronzes on the basis of the argument that the objects were made from metals imported from Europe, is a clear indication that the British Museum is not even envisaging the possibility of repatriation. Added to this false argument, is the view of the Director of the Art Institute of Chicago who argues that colonialism and imperialism have nothing to do with the presence of stolen/looted objects in the British Museum, London, Louvre, Paris, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Museum of Ethnology, Berlin, the so-called “universal museums”.

There should be no illusion about the question of restitution of African artefacts now lying in the former colonialist and imperialist capitals. These objects of great artistic and financial values are also regarded as war trophies and those who seize cultural objects of others by force of arms are not very likely to return them without some great pressure.

Kwame Opoku. 5 April, 2009.

Looted Benin artefacts, others may be worth N313bn

By Akeem Lasisi
Published: Thursday, 2 Apr 2009

As prices of art works continue to appreciate in the local and international markets, agitators for the repatriation of about 6,500 Nigerian antiquities illegally being held in various museums and other collections in European countries and beyond have put the monetary value at N313bn.

Mostly involved are Benin bronzes, ivories and other ancient works looted by British colonialists, especially during the reprisal attacks launched by the Queen's soldiers against natives trying to resist imperialism in 1897.

While the Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Dr. Joe Eboreime, described as immoral the excuses often given by foreign museums for holding on to the antiquities, he said the number could be higher going by the fact that there are many others in private hands.

Eboreime said in a telephone interview with our correspondent that it was an exhibition of Benin antiquities in foreign museums a year ago that suggested a reliable inventory of the antiquities in formal settings.

”From the catalogue produced for the exhibition, we now got the number of the Benin art works in such museums,” he said.

The number in the catalogue of the exhibition which was organised by African Museum was 1,500.

The exhibition which held, among other places, in Chicago, United States, had Nigerian representatives in attendance.

While terracotta and Nok arts were also systematically stolen from Ife, Osun State, and some Northern parts of the country, it was from Benin, Edo State, that the heaviest volume of antiquities was removed and carted to various museums in Britain, Germany and other parts of the world, with current market values indicating that they are worth between N58bn and N133bn.

Among others, an account by an art historian, Philip J. C. Dark, in his work titled, Benin Bronze Heads: Styles and Chronology, indicates that up to 6,500 Benin objects are in some 77 places across the globe.

The British Museum is said to be in custody of about 700 pieces while the Ethnology Museum in Berlin holds over 500. On the whole, the value of the stolen antiquities navigates in a sea of billions, even by Nigerian standards.

For instance, last year, at an auction held in Lagos, one of the works of seasoned artist, Bruce Onabrakpeya, was sold for over N9m.

At subsequent exhibitions and auctions, paintings, carvings and other mixed-media also competed in millions.

Using Onabrakpeya as a criterion, therefore, it can be said that the value of Benin antiquities being illegally held by foreign bodies amounts to some 6, 500 by N9m, which is some N58.5b.

Yet, this is minimal compared to what obtains in the international arena to which the stolen works now belong. For instance, recently, two paintings of the all-time master, Picasso, were stolen in Zurich, with both valued at about $4. 5m.

Potentially, therefore, the Benin art works being illegally held abroad are worth half of that amount multiplied by 6,500.

In a more pragmatic sense, if each of the stranded antiquities is valued at $2m, the total of their worth comes to $13bn or N89bn at a rate of N145 per dollar.

Pundits also argue that Picasso's works are priceless, based on his pedigree, the fact, too, is that most of the Benin artefacts are bronze carvings whose values are historically and artistically enormous.

Besides, another inference can be drawn from the case of Edvard Munch's super modern art, Madonna, which was recently set for auction. An official estimate values it at over £7m. What makes the comparison more pertinent, is that the painting was produced in 1895, two years before the British soldiers struck and ravaged the Benin antiquities' world.

Using the Madonna estimate, therefore, the pieces being held will be in the range of 6, 500 by £7m, coming to a whooping $45. 5 or N313b.

As the immediate past President of the Society of Nigerian Artists, Dr. Kolade Osinowo, noted, the moves to have the antiquities repatriated started long ago.

Among recent concerns expressed by the Federal Government over the fate of the works, two former Ministers for Tourism and Culture, Chief Femi Fani-Kayode and Prince Adetokunbo Kayode, had challenged the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation, among other institutions, to intervene in the country's bid to get the objects repatriated.

But the most strident call has been coming from the Benin royalty, which, in 1996/97, officially demanded the return of the works from British museums.

On behalf of the monarchy that was then set for the centenary anniversary of its troubled encounter with the British, the Chair of the Africa Reparations Movement, Bernie Grant, had written to the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, requesting the return of the objects.

The monarchy's letter reads in part, “The Benin religious and cultural objects belong to a living culture and have deep historic and social value, which go far beyond the aesthetic and monetary value which they hold in exile.

“The Royal Family of Benin has therefore authorised me to make such a formal request, and has asked me to draw an analogy with the recent return to Scotland of the Stone of Destiny.”

But the response from the museum, as contained in a letter by its Director, Juilan Spalding, was not favourable, hence, the ceremony was held without the prime objects.

According to Spalding, while it is possible for the museum service to repatriate items from its collection, as it had done in the case of some Aboriginal human remains, it cannot advise the City Council that such should happen in this case.

She had said, ”Our reasons are entirely professional. Museums have a collective responsibility, both nationally and internationally, to preserve the past so that people can enjoy it and learn from it.

“In the case of the Benin collection in Glasgow, though it is small and not of the highest quality, it does play an important role in introducing our visitors to the culture and religious beliefs of Benin, whose artistic achievements rank with the finest, not just in Africa but in the whole world. Virtually all our 22 Benin items are on permanent view to the public in Kelvingrove and in St. Mungo's Museum of Religious Life and their withdrawal from these displays would limit, in our opinion, our visitors' understanding of the world.”

Osinowo further told our correspondent that beyond the huge colonial looting, art theft had become a global phenomenon, and that it was not limited to any age.

”One thing we do is that we encourage our members to report to the society any time any of their works is stolen,” Osinowo said.

Apart from stepping up security measures to keep the objects in Nigerian museums, Eboreime, however, explained that the NCMM was working through embassies to get artefacts stolen from the county repatriated.

He said he had also secured the support of the new Minister for Culture and Tourism, Senator Bello Gada, on this.

Particularly, he said, the Canadian Embassy had been very supportive of Nigeria's efforts, as evident in its return of three works intercepted at its borders in March.

Towards securing the objects at the National Museum in Lagos, which is said to be up to 40, 000, the NCMM recently got a big break from the Ford Foundation, which, in collaboration with the newly-launched Art and Business Foundation, gave it $2m for the building of a National Conservation Centre.

“With this, we will now have a conservation laboratory, a storage system that is one of its kind.”