Wed, 16 Mar 2011 Feature Article

Queen-Mother Idia and Others Must Return Home: Training Courses are no Substitutes for Looted Treasures

Throne of Oba Eresoyen, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.Throne of Oba Eresoyen, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany.

At the height of the protest organized by the Nigeria Liberty Forum against a proposed auction of a Queen-Mother Idia hip-mask by the Galway family at Sotheby's in December 2010, it was reported that the Nigerian government was in discussions with British authorities about restitution of the Benin bronzes and that a body was to be set up in Nigeria which would be charged with the responsibility of securing the return of looted artworks that are in foreign hands. Tribune reported (1) that, “the Federal Government is seeking diplomatic option to end the controversy surrounding the reported planned sale of the prized art objects.” The Tribune stated further that “The source disclosed that President Jonathan had given instructions to the effect that no effort should be spared to get the Benin arts, as well as other such artefacts that symbolised the pride of Nigerians and their rich cultural heritage. The president also ordered that machinery should be set in motion to get the artefacts repatriated into the country.

On the nature of the president's intervention, the source said appropriate officials that would handle the matter had been contacted and were expected to take the matter to the highest level of authority in Britain, adding that “we are ready to pursue the matter to the highest level.”

Since this report, we have received no further information about the decisions and activities of the Government in this respect. We do not know whether, in fact, negotiations have begun and, if so, at what level. Nor is the membership of the Nigerian delegation known. Who is heading the negotiating team and their time schedule are also not known. We are also waiting to hear about the establishment of the body that was to be responsible for the return of looted Nigerian arts and what its precise terms of reference are. Would that new body only deal with governments and museums or will it also contact private institutions and individuals who hold a considerable number of looted Nigerian artworks? At this moment, we do not even know to whom we could send suggestions regarding the restitution of Nigerian national treasures.

In the meanwhile, commentators have made suggestions and proposals which the Nigerian authorities may wish to consider with profit since many of the basic difficulties in questions of restitution are addressed in these suggestions.

Emeritus Professor John Picton has expressed views on the restitution of Benin bronzes in an article entitled “Compromise, negotiate, support”. (2) Among his suggestions is that the major museums in Europe and the USA should return to Nigeria some of the artefacts in their reserves whilst acknowledging that they do ”not have unproblematic ownership rights to this material.” Professor Picton also suggests that Nigeria should build a new museum in Benin City that meets international standards as regards facilities and security. We have already expressed elsewhere our views on Picton's proposals, especially as regards the suggestion to return to Nigeria pieces from the reserves of the major museums as opposed to taking from the totality of their holdings which include some of the masterpieces of Nigerian art. (3)

Interesting suggestions have also been made by Professor Neil Brodie in an article entitled, “ Compromise and restorative justice: More about Benin (4) Brodie suggests that:

“1. It should be recognised internationally that the Benin artworks were taken forcibly by an imperial power and, following the precedents of 1815 and 1945, that they should be returned. Ownership should be vested with an appropriate authority in Nigeria.

2. The Nigerian authority should offer a medium-term loan of

Benin artworks to the presently holding museums, in return for an agreed and fair share of any revenue generated by their display.

3. The money raised through these loans should be administered by a specially

constituted agency and used to build and endow an appropriate facility in Benin City.

4. The artworks should be returned home for curation and display in the new Benin facility.”

Brodie's suggestions deserve close attention and consideration since, in many ways, they go beyond what has so far been suggested.

We were particularly pleased to read from Brodie that the seizure of the Benin artefacts in 1897 was contrary to the general legal opinion in Europe at that time that works of science and art should be protected from plunder in wartime. Some Western scholars are unwilling to recognize that after the Napoleonic spoliations and the restitutions that followed, it was no longer acceptable to deprive defeated States and their people of their artworks. Brodie consequently suggests that the looted Benin bronzes should be returned and ownership invested with an authority in Nigeria. We take the position that since the Oba of Benin never gave up ownership in these objects; title to ownership still remains with him as representative of the Benin (Edo) people. An owner does not lose his right to ownership simply because another has attacked him and prevented him from exercising his rights to the property.

Oba Ewuakpe, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany Oba Ewuakpe, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany

Given the historical background to the looting of the Benin bronzes, I find it difficult to accept the idea that Benin loans the looted objects to the present holders in return for a fair share of any revenue generated by the display of the objects. We would suggest that the present holders pay compensation for depriving the owners of the income they could have generated by displaying those objects in Benin and also for deprivation of the use of the objects; pain and suffering should also be taken into account.

There may well be a case for loans in other contexts but the use of loans as means of raising funds from those who looted the artefacts seems to me to be mixing illegal actions with compensation to the deprived owner. Compensation for the illegal act of looting should not be covered by loans. Either the looting was illegal and illegitimate or it was not. Should Nigeria decide to build a new museum at Benin City, it would be better to do so from its own funds. Nigeria is not a poor country. Those who looted the Benin bronzes should not have any say in the construction of a new museum at Benin, especially since they are still very reluctant to recognize the illegal and illegitimate nature of their actions. To this day, the British Government has not even apologised for the nefarious invasion nor has there been any compensation for the loss of lives and the destruction of property in Benin City.

Queen-mother Idia, Benin/Nigeria, now in the British Museum.Seized by the British during the nefarious invasion of Benin in 1897.Will she ever be liberated from the British Museum? Queen-mother Idia, Benin/Nigeria, now in the British Museum.
Seized by the British during the nefarious invasion of Benin in 1897.
Will she ever be liberated from the British Museum?

Prof. Brodie, no doubt, made the suggestion to build a new museum in order to answer to those who argue that Nigeria does not have modern museums that meet international standards. We are all for new museums but I have a fundamental objection to holders of looted Benin bronzes raising such an issue. They have no legal or moral right to pose as a prior condition for the return of the looted objects the building of a new museum. How an owner uses his returned looted object has no bearing on his ownership rights. Above all, those who looted or are holding looted objects have no business to tell the owner how to take care of his property. The looter cannot tell an owner of a looted object that he is unwilling to return the object unless the owner can convince him that he has adequate facilities for the returned object. In any case, readers will recall that after arguing for decades that Athens had no adequate museum for the Parthenon/Elgin Marbles, once an ultra-modern museum, New Acropolis Museum, was built, the Director of the British Museum stated that the location of the Marbles was never an issue.

It is interesting to note in this context that both Picton and Brodie seem to accord to the present holders some rights of ownership. Emeritus Professor Picton accords to Britain/British Museum and others in Europe and America ownership rights in the looted artefacts. He states as follows:

“the recognition by the museums in Europe and America that they do not have unproblematic ownership rights to this material - some recognition, indeed, that the king of Benin might have a case”.

Professor Brodie who writes that the British looting of 1897 was against the legal opinion of the time, suggests that Picton “might more fairly have said that their ownership rights are highly problematic, founded as they are on a legal regime of imperial aggrandisement and colonial deprivation that would not be countenanced today, and maintained in apparent defiance of relevant international precedents.”

Despite his own explicit denial of a valid legal basis for rights in the Benin artefacts, Brodie accords to the major museums some ownership rights that “should be invested with an appropriate authority in Nigeria”. Can one transfer ownership that one does not possess? In our view, despite their current possession/detention of the Benin bronzes, the European and American museums have never acquired any valid legal rights of ownership seeing that the mode of acquisition was illegal and illegitimate ab initio. Ownership in the artefacts has always remained with the Oba of Benin. That the Oba is prevented from exercising his rights by the Western museums, does not deprive him of his rights

Austrians, Germans and others who acquired the Benin artefacts from the British must also be considered as having no valid rights to the artefacts they presently hold. In any case, the law of Benin never authorized the seizure of the Oba's property. Benin being the place of pretended act of acquisition, the law of Benin should govern that act. Many have discussed this issue as if there were no laws in Benin in 1897 that would forbid such patent violation of rights in property. Joseph Egharevba, the leading authority on Benin history and laws, states in his classic work, The Benin Laws and Customs (1947) that the person of the Oba is sacred and he is the source of law. He could make and repeal laws. (5)The British, of course, were not interested in presenting a true picture of Benin but preferred to depict that Kingdom as a land of juju, cannibalism and human sacrifice but what about others who have discussed this issue?

Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Vlkerkunde Museum, Vienna, Austria Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Völkerkunde Museum, Vienna, Austria

We fully agree that the artworks should be returned for display in Benin City, not necessarily in a new museum but wherever the Oba and his people want to display their artefacts. Clearly, we should not give those who looted the artefacts a say in their location in Benin. Nigeria is no longer a British colony and the British should not be seen in any way as directing affairs in Nigeria, including museum matters. It is amazing how Westerners, even those sympathetic to African causes, assume that they are more concerned about the need to preserve Benin cultural artefacts than the people of Benin who looked after these objects before the British came and looted them in 1897. What does this concern reveal about the attitudes of Westerners towards Africans generally?

Whatever may be made of the above proposals and other subsequent suggestions, negotiations for the return of the Benin bronzes as well as all other looted artefacts should be guided, inter alia, by the following:

a) The Benin case is of singular importance not only because of the artistic quality of the works but also because of the brutal method of acquisition. There are few cases where the facts are not contested, not even by those responsible for the act of deprivation.

b) Solutions adopted in the Benin case are likely to influence the solution of other African cases of restitution.

Those negotiating on behalf of Benin/Nigeria should always bear in mind that:

a) They act not only on behalf of Benin and Nigeria but also on behalf of Africa and Africans in the Diaspora.

b) They go into these negotiations not as beggars or colonial subjects but as representatives of independent Nigeria and Africa. It is true that these discussions and negotiations should have taken place, at the latest, 50 years ago before Independence.

c) Given the nature and functions of the Benin bronzes and their historical context, offers of training courses and the like are no substitute for national treasures. Queen-Mother Idia, Oba Ewuakpe, Oba Akenzua I and the others must return home to occupy their rightful place in the culture of the Benin and Nigerian peoples. These artefacts are the archives and records of the history and culture of the Benin people who need them more than the British and other Westerners. Courses for museum personnel can never replace icons of Nigerian culture. When Professor Tunde Babawale, Executive Director of Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilization (CBACC) wrote in 2007 to Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum that the essence of his letter was to request the return of the hip-mask of Queen-Mother Idia, the reply he got was that the British Museum had been invited “to offer our assistance and advice on the development of the Lagos Museum through a programme of museum development, training, professional exchanges, and capacity building” (6)

Offering training courses for museum personnel cannot be set on the same level as returning precious national treasures that have been looted by a colonial power. If such training is needed, the Government should make the necessary budgetary provisions and should not accept a solution which can only deprive Nigeria of its rich cultural heritage. In this context, the Government should be reminded that the compromise reached by the Nigerian Government with the French Government over the looted Nok sculptures should not be repeated in negotiations over the return of the Benin bronzes.(7)

d) Austrians, Germans and others who bought Benin bronzes from the British like to think they had acquired the objects legally and legitimately, after all they bought them at open auction and were not involved in the British attack on Benin City in 1897. (8) But this position is not entirely tenable since they had no good faith or bona fides in securing the objects. They knew that the items they were purchasing had been recently looted by the British from Benin and so could not have acquired them in good faith. Indeed, the auctioneers always informed them that the items had recently been sent from Benin. (9)

Regarding acquisitions of Benin bronzes by the Völkerkunde Museum, Vienna, Armand Duchâteau, former curator of African Art at the museum has a very interesting chapter in his book, Benin: Royal Art of Africa. It becomes clear on reading this book that the Austrians and Germans were well aware of the circumstances under which the Benin artefacts were looted by the British and how the supplier secured the objects for sale. (10)

Oba Ozolua and his retainers, Benin, Nigeria, now in Vlkerkunde Museum, Vienna, Austria. Oba Ozolua and his retainers, Benin, Nigeria, now in Völkerkunde Museum, Vienna, Austria.

e) Under no circumstances should Nigeria allow any of the holders of Benin bronzes to act as a spokesperson for Nigeria or negotiate with others on behalf of Nigeria.

f) There should be a demand for compensation for the years of the illegal detention of the artefacts and the consequent deprivation of use and enjoyment of the artefacts. Benefits derived by the holders should be discussed and shared.

g) The United Nations, UNESCO, and ICOM should be invited to participate in discussions on restitution since these organizations have for years insisted on the need for restitution despite the opposition of Western holders. Besides, this will ensure the wider acceptability of proposed solutions.

h) Restitution of the Benin bronzes is a matter which interests greatly the Nigerian and African public. Negotiations and discussion on these objects are matters of public interest and should be widely reported. There should be regular information supplied through the media, including the internet.

i) Clear deadlines should be established and published regarding dates of negotiations and delivery of agreed restitutions in order to avoid waiting for another hundred years for the actual delivery of artefacts and to prevent anyone from advancing the argument that there has not been any demand for delivery.

If the century old illegal detention of the Benin artefacts is to be ended, we need thorough preparations and negotiations which can only be helped by open and public discussions and not by secret deals behind curtains. The opportunity for public education on Nigeria's cultural heritage should not be lost in our age of transparency and internet.

Kwame Opoku. 13 March, 2011

Members of the nefarious Punitive Expedition of 1897 posing proudly with their looted Benin artefacts Members of the nefarious Punitive Expedition of 1897 posing proudly with their looted Benin artefacts

1. Nigerian Tribune,
3. K.Opoku, “Compromise on the Restitution of Benin Bronzes? Comments on an Article by Prof. John Picton on Restitution of Benin Bronzes.”

4. Neil Brodle – Compromise and restorative justice: More about Benin

5. The Service Press Limited, Apongbon Street. Lagos,

6. K. Opoku, “Reflections on the Abortive Queen-Idia Mask Auction; Tactical Withdrawal or Decision of Principle?”http://www.modernghana.comr

7. Folarin Shyllon, “Negotiations for the Return of Nok Sculptures from Nigeria - An unrighteous Conclusion.”

This presentation recounted the controversy over the three illegally exported Nok and Sokoto objects originating from Nigeria which landed in an exhibition at the Louvre organized in anticipation of the new Quai Branly Museum. Despite the fact that these objects were on the Red List posted on ICOM's website, the French government negotiated their acquisition from a Belgian art dealer with the proviso that an agreement from the Nigerian government would be required before the actual purchase. President Chirac is reported to have personally sought and obtained the approval for the purchase of the Noks from President Obasanjo of Nigeria despite the strong opposition of the top echelon of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments on the grounds that the objects were illegally exported from Nigeria and therefore remained the legal cultural property of Nigeria. In the end a wholly unsatisfactory and unrighteous arrangement was entered into between Nigeria and France which consisted of France's recognition of Nigeria's ownership of the three Nok and Sokoto objects deposited with the Musée du Quai Branly, to be exhibited with the museum's permanent collection for the exceptionally long period of twenty-five years (renewable).

UNESCO Regional Workshop on the Fight against Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property, Cape Town, South Africa 27-30 September 2004

8. “The collections in Berlin were acquired through the art market or

private commerce. No deal was in fact possible without a contract of sale

or permission to export. This does not mean that nothing was sold or exported. But it does mean that all objects came legally into the collections”,

Peter-Klaus Schuster
General Director, State Museums of Berlin
no. 1 > 2004 ICOM NEWS. In December 2002, a “Declaration on the Importance and Value of. Universal Museums” was signed by leading museums of Europe and ...

9. On the massive acquisition of Benin bronzes by the Germans, see K. Opoku, “Benin to Berlin Ethnologisches Museum: Are Benin Masks Made in Berlin?”

10. Prestel Press, New York, pp.105-113, 1994
Altar Group, Oba Akenzua I, Benin, Nigeria, now in Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Germany