Tue, 02 Apr 2019 Feature Article

Benin Dialogue Group Removes Restitution Of Benin Artefacts From Its Agenda

Queen-mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany. Would she come back home to Benin City on a temporary loan?Queen-mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany. Would she come back home to Benin City on a temporary loan?

‘As for the ownership status of the works, who does not know that Benin is the true owner despite the semantics and legalese by the international community?

We have had enough of these meetings which only end as academic exercise.

Prince Edun Agharese, Enogie of Obazuwa . (1)

We received a copy of an article entitled Benin Dialogue Group: Benin Royal Museum-: Three Steps Forward, Six Steps Back by Folarin Shyllon in Art, Antiquity and Law (2). This is an interesting article because Shyllon has participated in all the meetings of the Benin Dialogue Group since its inception and therefore has information which many of us are not privileged to have. I have a lot of respect for Folarin Shyllon’s achievements in this area and can say I have read his contributions that are easily available to the normal reader. He explains in the article some of the activities of the Benin Dialogue Group. My own impressions of this group are contained in several articles that are also easily available on the internet. (3)

Towards the end of the above-mentioned article, under the heading, a MISSTEP and in CONCLUSION Shyllon launches a surprising attack on my person, by name, at least 4 times. I intended to ignore these comments because such attacks and responses might distract from the main objective, that is the restitution of looted African art to which both of us are committed but approach in different styles and ways, depending on our personalities and the opportunities we have to make our contributions. But I was advised that since he is making allegations of fact, in the interest of scholarship, somebody must answer, and I may be the best to do so. Besides, he may have been writing these attacks on behalf of a group of persons who cannot tolerate that an African, on his own, without being employed to do so, comments on the activities of persons selected by the museums and their governments to deal with an issue of common concern.

The relevant parts of Shyllon’s article that may not be easily available to all are reproduced below for the reader’s convenience and also to allow quick reference to what is alleged and the answer thereto. (4) We shall also use his headings to facilitate the reader’s search for what we are commenting on as well as indicate the innuendos, insinuations, and hidden insults therein.


After criticising the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) for rejecting the whole notion of restitution, Shyllon writes ‘

wholesale rejection of restitution as a matter of interest to the group should not have been so carelessly jettisoned. The point is being made because it gives fodder to some critics of the Benin Dialogue Group. In a reference to the Cambridge Statement, Kwame Opoku wrote: “We have the so-called Dialogue Group on Benin City proposing a strange scheme whereby some of the looted Benin artefacts would be displayed in Benin City, but ownership of the artefacts would be with Western museums. And they find some Africans to approve of such a ridiculous and insulting proposal (emphasis added). (Emphasis by Shyllon)

Shyllon criticises the BDG of which he has been a member or at least, attending all their meetings from its inception. He is here acting as a party and judge in his own case. He faults them for rejecting restitution not so much because this is a wrong attitude ‘The point is being made because it gives fodder to some critics of the Benin Dialogue Group’ and immediately refers to Kwame Opoku.’ So, the BDG gives fodder to Opoku. My Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary of Current English, Eight Edition, OUP,2010 defines fodder as follows:

1. food for horses and farm animals. 2. (disapprovingly) (often after a noun) people or things that are considered to have only one use: Without education, these children will end up as factory fodder (=only able to work in a factory) This will be fodder for the gossip columnist.

Shyllon is apparently angry that I described the proposal for loan of looted Benin artefacts to Nigerians by the very State that looted them or hold them as ridiculous and insulting proposal. I still believe such a proposal is insulting if you consider the people who lost their lives in the invasion of 1897, the burning of Benin City, the general destruction and violence ensuing from the attack and the fact that the State that looted the artefacts has kept them for more that hundred years and is still not willing even to restitute some of the artefacts. This is matter of evaluation of the historical facts and the proposal in the present world context where we have the impression we are moving towards restitution. Shyllon himself mentions the famous Declaration at Ouagadougou by French President Emmanuel Macron who has declared his intention to make restitution of looted African artefacts in French Museums. Shyllon himself refers to the report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy who have recommended restitution of looted African artefacts in French museums which were not obtained with the consent of the African owners.[PDF] The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational

Since Shyllon himself criticises the BDG for rejecting restitution, why does he say that ‘it is ill-advised for him [Opoku] to dub it ridiculous and insulting? They are wrong but I should not criticise them. Why did we then go to university at all if in the end we cannot even criticize those who are wrong. Why? Because they are Europeans who would expect the usual African deference? Are they entitled to expect the same from those who have had the same or similar education as the Europeans they are dealing with?

Shyllon declares that ‘It is possible that Dr. Opoku is unfamiliar with resolution of South Korea French impasse with regard to the Oe-KyuJangGak royal archives’. So Shyllon is accusing me here of ignorance. There may be some restitution cases that I am not familiar with but anyone who has even a cursory acquaintance with my hundreds of articles on restitution would be surprised that despite all my activities, I am unfamiliar with the most elementary case that is discussed in French-speaking circles whenever the issue of restitution comes up. I checked the author Shyllon’s sources of information and realized that he consulted and refers to several articles in Elginism. But this is precisely the place where I published a long note on the French-Korean dispute regarding the Korean royal manuscripts which I reproduced below in annex II. (4) Could I be unfamiliar with a case when I wrote a note on the same case nine years ago at the same place Shyllon was looking for information? Did he see my note or did he not?

Besides, Shyllon has discussed the South Korean-French impasse in a contribution he made to Peju Layiwola’s book Benin Art and the Restitution Question, pp.61-90. Immediately following Shyllon’s contribution is my own contribution, at pp.91-107, entitled ‘One Counter-Agenda from Africa: Would Western Museums Return Looted Objects if Nigeria and Other African States Were Ruled by Angels? (5) Did Shyllon presume that I would not read his contribution in a book where I also have a contribution?

We presume that Shyllon has seen the notice on the Atelier juridique in Document 3 of the Sarr-Savoy report which he cites in his article. That notice clearly indicates that among the subjects to be discussed on 26 June 2018 at the College de France within the Atelier juridique, Legal Workshop, in the First Session was a paper by Kwame Opoku on the German Guidelines for handling of collections acquired in colonial contexts and in the Second Session a paper on the return of the Korean archives, returned by France to South Korea presented by Stephane Duroy, to be followed by discussions. He would also have noticed that in the Fourth Session in the afternoon, there was to be a reflection on the various models of return with discussants including Kwame Opoku. How can Shyllon then presume that it is possible that Dr. Opoku is unfamiliar with the French-South Korean impasse which was discussed by top French specialists on the issue? (6) A very strange presumption by someone who has read the Sarr-Savoy report.

Professor Shyllon does not refer to the offer of loan of looted Ethiopian artefacts made to the Ethiopians by the Victoria and Albert Museum. (7) We cannot presume that the author Shyllon was not aware of a case that was widely discussed in several papers. If he mentioned the Ethiopian case, he would have had to add that the proud Ethiopians roundly objected to an offer of a loan that was seen as an affront to their history and dignity. (8)

Shyllon states that there is a precedent for what is being proposed to Nigerians regarding the Benin artefacts and it is therefore not a ‘strange scheme’ as Opoku suggested. And it is ill-advised for him to dub it ‘ridiculous and insulting. Shyllon is here pleading for the proposed loan. He mentions one precedent. But he must know that one precedent is not enough to establish a case when there are dozens of other precedents that go in a different direction. The attempt to present the offer of loan from the Europeans to Nigeria as something normal is clearly contradicted by all the various cases of restitution that we know. (9)

When Italians, Peruvians, Turks and others asked for the restitution of their looted artefacts, the artefacts were either returned as requested or were denied and nobody ever proposed to them loans of their own looted artefacts.

The British Museum has proposed to the Greeks a loan of the Parthenon Marbles if they would recognize first the legal ownership of the British Museum. The proud Greeks have rejected the ridiculous offer.

When Germans asked the Russians to return German artworks looted by the Red Army towards the end of the last world war, nobody spoke about loans. They were denied. Would they accept a loan of looted German works from the Russians? Yet Germans turn around and propose a loan of looted Benin artefacts to Nigerians. Has anybody ever proposed a loan of looted Chinese artefacts to China? Europeans have too much respect for the Chinese to make such a ridiculous proposal. But for Africans?

As I write this article, I have received information that Italy is returning 800 artefacts to China Did they not think about loans?

If Shyllon does not find the idea of those who looted Nigerian artefacts loaning them to Nigeria ‘insulting,’ I cannot do much about that. Perhaps we should remind ourselves what Professor Tunde Babawale, Director, Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC) wrote:

There is no question about the fact that Africa (Nigeria inclusive) has had her artefacts mindlessly looted by her colonial masters and in the Nigerian instance, the British. This is why the Centre for Black and African Arts and Civilisation (CBAAC)has remained resolutely committed to the struggle for the return of artefacts looted from every part of the African continent. This has met with responses (especially from the British Museum) that appear not only insulting to our collective sensibility, but which fail to recognise the imperative of moving with time, away from the stereotype of flaunting expertise in being custodians of the wealth of others without consent.’ (10)

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Venus of Cyrene looted by Italians in 1915 and restituted to Libya in 2008.

It is ironical that in the article we are discussing, as well as in his previous article published in the same book as Prof. Babawale’s article, Shyllon makes a statement to the effect that: ‘The appropriation of a nations art treasures has always been regarded as a trophy of war which adds to the glory of the victor and the humiliation of the vanquished. The practice has often been condemned in the past. In 1812, Sir Alexander Croke had a collection of prints and paintings returned to the Philadelphia Academy of Arts on the grounds that the arts and sciences are recognised by all civilised countries as forming an exception to the strict laws of war. They are considered as not being owned by a particular nation but as the property of the entire human race. Even when belonging to the State, cultural property must be treated as privately owned, that is, as fully protected against seizure, destruction or defacement. To return them would therefore be in conformity with the law of nations, as practised by all civilised countries.(11)


Folarin Shyllon writes in his conclusion as follows.

Is it by refusing to take part in the activities of the Dialogue Group that the antiquities will return? The author Opoku, referred to above, has over the years published many strident articles calling for the return of African artefacts. Yet no Benin bronze or other looted or stolen African artefact has over this period returned to Africa. Therefore the reproach to ‘some Africans’ engaging in a dialogue with Western museums is misguided. Is half a loaf not better than none at all? An ‘all or nothing’ approach to restitution has proven to be a road that leads nowhere. Be that as it may, the dissembling on the issue of restitution in the Leiden Statement is unfortunate. It is a backward step that is quite unnecessary. The Dialogue Group started unambiguously with the twin objectives of restitution and lease. They are two sides of the same coin, and it is quite unhelpful to abandon restitution in the Leiden Statement. Still, the criticism of the Dialogue Group by Kwame Opoku leaves much to be desired. If the British Museum and the Ethnology Museum, Berlin were today to declare that they would release 100 pieces each of the Benin antiquities in their possession, is there a museum in Lagos, Abuja or Benin City that can adequately house them and ensure their safety and proper handling?’

We will try to disentangle this bag of attacks as far as possible.

a). Is it by refusing to take part in the activities of the Dialogue Group that the antiquities will return?

Nobody has asked me whether they should take part in the activities of the BDG or not but if I should be asked for advice, I would answer as follows: Talk to them by all means but if they declare clearly that the question of restitution is not part of the agenda, you must decide whether it is worth your while to attend such a meeting. Prince Edun Agharese Akenzua, Enogie of Obazuwa, representative of the Oba at the meeting which discussed the so-called Benin Plan of Action in 2013, is reported to have declared that’ there is nothing in the Plan of Action that really addresses restitution.

It is difficult not to agree with the opinion of the prince who is well versed in the issue of restitution of the Benin artefacts, having represented the Oba at various places where the matter was discussed. (12)

b). Then follows a statement by Shyllon which really surprised me. ‘The author Opoku, referred to above, has over the years published many strident articles calling for the return of African artefacts. Yet no Benin bronze or other looted or stolen African artefact has over this period returned to Africa’

My Oxford Dictionary defines ‘strident’ as follows:

  1. Having a loud, rough and unpleasant sound: a strident voice, strident music
  2. Aggressive and determined: He is a strident advocate of nuclear power, strident criticism.

It is somewhat ironical that calling for justice in a case where a city has been burnt, many people killed as a result of foreign military invasion, one is described as aggressive. More aggressive than the guns and bullets that extinguished many individuals in 1897? But can Syhllon truly declare that

c). Yet no Benin bronze or other looted or stolen African artefact has over this period

returned to Africa?

Regarding Benin bronzes, we recall that one Dr. Mark Walker of Britain returned some Benin artefacts his grandfather had left him to Benin and was received with joy and gratitude. The Nigerian papers were all full of this joyful news and many articles on the issue were published. Shyllon’s views were reported on the handling of the return process by National Commission on Museums and Monuments. (13)

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Bird of Prophecy and a gong looted by the British in 1897 and returned to Benin by Dr. Mark Walker in 2014.

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Dr. Walker returns Benin artefacts to Oba of Benin in 2014

What about the objects the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, returned to Nigeria? What about all the artefacts that were returned to Egypt when Zahi Hawass was in charge of the Antiquities Department there or does Shyllon adopt a Hegelian view that Egypt is not part of Africa? (14) What about all the objects the Nigerian National Commission of Museums and Monuments celebrated as the return of Nigerian treasures? Nigeria Celebrates Return of Lost Treasures: The Lost Nigerian Nigerian Treasures Are Not Yet Back...

These were of course not as a result of restitution in our understanding, but they were objects returned to Nigeria even if they were not treasures as the NCMM would have us believe. What about the Axum obelisk that was restituted by Italy to Ethiopia? What about the Venus of Cyrene that was restituted by Italy to Libya? What about the return of the Makonde mask from Barbier Muller, Switzerland to Tanzania? Shyllon wrote an article on this subject entitled, ‘Return of Makonde Mask from Switzerland to Tanzania: A Righteous Conclusion? (Art, Antiquity and Law Vol 16, Issue1 2011). What about his article entitled ‘Repatriation of Antiquities to Sub-Saharan Africa: The Agony and the Ecstasy? (July 2014 issue of Art, Antiquity and Law)

It is clear, even from his own writings that the assertion that no artefact was returned to Africa in the period that, i.e.2007-2019, cannot be sustained. The evidence against that assertion is simply overwhelming. Since Shyllon was also writing during this period, should both of us stop writing?

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Two of the artefacts, Nok and Benin, that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston returned to Nigeria in 2014.

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Obelisk from Axum was in Rome for decades before returning home in 2008.

Syhllon’s statement that no article was returned in the period is also remarkable from another point of view. Did anybody ever believe that, the looted artefacts would be restituted as a result of an article or articles? We are not so naïve as to overestimate the power of our writing. My writing is not aimed directly at bringing home the looted artefacts for more is required than that. My aim has been to keep the restitution question, especially as regard the Benin treasures, on the agenda of all and in that respect, some suggest that I have achieved a measure of success. My other aim has been to inform our African public about the issues in this field and to equip our youth with sufficient arguments for discussing them.

Most of our governments and their institutions have not considered the importance of public education and in many cases mislead the public. When the question of a loan of the Benin bronzes is discussed, the differences between returning an object on loan and restitution are obscured so that when people hear that Benin bronzes are coming home, they believe they are returning forever and are not informed that the items are on loan for a limited period. Nobody informs us about the length of period of the loan, who pays for the transportation and the cost of the loan and the insurance premium. Nobody tells us about the numbers involved and which museums are sending which objects. The immunity from legal process that was sought for the looted objects to be returned to Nigeria is no longer openly mentioned. Indeed, the holders of the looted artefacts have till today, with a few exceptions, not told us the total number of Benin objects they are holding. We have from time to time established a list of holders of the Benin bronzes and their numbers. Nobody has corrected our numbers. They prefer the public to remain uninformed and yet this will be the minimum we could expect from the holders of the Benin artefacts. We are left in the dark.

d). Therefore, the reproach to ‘some Africans’ engaging in a dialogue with Western museums is misguided.

We have no objections to engaging in discussions with Western museums. After all, they are still holding our looted treasures. But if they declare they do not want to talk about what we consider a priority, i.e. the restitution of Benin and other treasures, the question arises whether there is any point in talking to them. Talk to them about building museums which should be none of their business.? Nigeria can surely build her museums without submitting her plans to the imperialist holders of the Benin bronzes. Nigerians are not beggars.

We ourselves have engaged in talks with holders of Benin bronzes and other African artefacts when they have explicitly stated that they are interested in restitution. Shyllon should read carefully again the Sarr-Savoy report. Any insinuation that one is somehow against the Western museums or their governments is of course, ridiculous. The criticisms that I make have been made by others, perhaps not with the same consistency and passion. Shyllon himself has also criticised Western museums without anybody thinking that he does not want to talk to them. (15)

e). Is half a loaf not better than none at all? An ‘all or nothing’ approach to restitution has proven to be a road that leads nowhere.

To Shyllon’s question whether half-a loaf is not better than none at all, my answer will be that it depends on what loaf you are talking about and what half is proposed. To stay with the loaf example. If I know that I am entitled to a full loaf as all the others, but when my turn comes, I am offered half-a loaf, I will refuse it and complain that I have been cheated. Especially, if I know my brother and other members of my family or town will present themselves for their entitlements, I would definitely not accept half a loaf for fear of prejudicing the chances of the others. Shyllon does not tell us in terms of artefacts, what will be half a loaf. We hope he is not thinking of relief plaque of a Benin dignitary, with one half, the upper part in Berlin and the lower part, in Hamburg. A real mutilation of a relief. In this case it is surely preferable that we forsake our half loaf and let one museum have the whole relief. This obviously is not part of the thinking of Western museums otherwise the mutilated dignitary would, in the past hundred years, have been put together. Similarly, one knows that the British Museum is not impressed by the argument that the Parthenon Marbles should be re-united in Athens. Indeed, MacGregor and the British Museum seem to believe this is a perfect distribution. (16)

Does Shyllon have here information which we are not aware of? Have the Germans perhaps stated that they would share the bulk of 508 to 580 Benin artefacts they have in Berlin? If half a loaf here refers to half of the 508 pieces, I would gladly accept the 254 pieces. Thus sometimes, half a loaf would be acceptable but not always as Shyllon seems to assume. If we know that Ethiopia would be the next to ask for her artefacts or has already asked for them, half a loaf would be prejudicial to their claims after Nigeria has accepted half-a loaf of what is available. Could the Ghanaians probably, pragmatically, accept half of the looted Golden Mask in the Wallace Collection and thus destroy forever the sculpture said to be the finest specimen of Asante skill in gold works? I can tell Shyllon that if Nigeria goes through with a loan of her looted artefacts, Ethiopia, Ghana and all other African States would be told in future that they will have to accept loans as Nigeria has done and that it would be unfair to Nigeria to give them a better deal. Let us all mark this.

We should have no illusions. Loan of an artefact is not half way or pre-step to restitution. The two concepts are different and any idea that Nigeria/Benin could get a loan now which may in future be converted to restitution is a grave mistake. There is no ground to believe, with all due respect, that those who are not willing to consider restitution now will somehow change their minds in due course and accept restitution. This can only be entertained on the basis of misunderstanding or underestimating the determination not to part with artefacts the Europeans and other Westerners have detained for more than a hundred years. There has never been a better time for restitution than now. Besides, there is no doubt as to which is preferable. Whilst the one puts Nigeria in a position of dependant, the other would make Nigeria owner of the objects. Whereas restitution signifies the beginning of a new era, a loan guarantees the continuation of the old relationship of power and weakness, with all the possibilities of disputes not so much about the initial looting but about the implementation of the loan agreement. The terms of the loan agreement must be strictly observed and any pretence to ownership will surely be corrected.

When the pressure on the European powers and museums is reduced, as it will be, whether we agree to loans or secure restitutions, there will be less interest for them to contemplate restitution; they would have overcome the bad conscience they all seem to have. The ability to mobilize support amongst the African peoples who have not been told the difference between restitution and loans, would be considerably reduced if not non-existent.

Shyllon seems to deliver his ultimate heavy blow in this statement:

e) If the British Museum and the Ethnology Museum, Berlin were today to declare that they would release 100 pieces each of the Benin antiquities in their possession, is there a museum in Lagos, Abuja or Benin City that can adequately house them and ensure their safety and proper handling?

This question is properly addressed to those officials who are paid to preserve and protect Nigeria’s cultural heritage and have been provided the means to perform their functions. Whether the means are adequate or not, they have to settle that with the Nigerian parliament and authorities. But since the question has apparently been posed to me as a critic, I will try to answer as best as I can.

This question is what I call idle hypothesis. It is like the question, what would you do if you were alone on an island in the Pacific.? We know very well you will never be alone on an island in the Pacific, but it is entertaining to discuss what you would do.

Shyllon knows very well that the British Museum and the Ethnology Museum, Berlin that have been refusing for ages to return even a single Benin artefact, are not likely to send soon 100 pieces each to Nigeria. If it were not so, why have there been so much discussion on the issue of restitution of Benin artefacts? He knows that in the matter of artefacts, museums do not suddenly make such a declaration. It takes ages to get even the smallest concession from a museum about artefacts. In 2007, during the symposium organized in connection with the exhibition Benin: Kings and Rituals-Court Arts from Nigeria, May 9- 3 September 2007, when the Benin delegation said it would be satisfied if each of the Western museums present at the symposium would return one Benin artefact, the then director of the Ethnology Museum, Vienna, now World Museum, Vienna, quickly answered that this was impossible. We challenged the assertions of the director. At least two persons in the present BDG were there who could testify. Indeed, one of them was the curator of the excellent exhibition and edited the magnificent exhibition catalogue. (17)

The hypothesis of the two Western museums declaring their willingness to send 100 Benin pieces each to Nigeria, is idle speculation unless Shyllon as a member of the group has information that is not available to us. Should British Museum and Ethnology Museum seriously make such a declaration, we know that between the declaration and the date of implementation, there would be a period long enough to organize the reception of those pieces in Lagos, Abuja and Benin City. We should not forget that the Benin pieces were looted from the palace of Oba Ovonramwen in 1897. Is the present palace of the Oba not big enough to receive the pieces? We see in this angst about where to put 200 pieces a certain danger of internalization, at least partially, of the Western allegations about the incapacity of Nigerians and Africans to organize properly their affairs or to protect their cultural artefacts. And this comes from those who looted Benin artefacts with military force in 1897. If Shyllon believes or expects that the British Museum and the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, are in the mood to return such large numbers of Benin artefacts to Nigeria, could he kindly ask them to increase the number to 200 pieces each? We would help to find a place for the returned Benin treasures. We should remember though that however Nigeria organizes its museums and other places for the looted artefacts, we would never be able to guarantee their security if superior force be used to loot them. And this is not idle speculation.

But if Nigerian authorities are not ready to receive 200 pieces, the question arises as to what theyhave been doing in the last sixty years during which the restitution of those treasures has been a concern. Since Independence in 1960, every Nigerian Parliament or government has asked for the restitution

of Nigeria’s looted artefacts. What have the responsible authorities been doing, making no preparations for those artefacts they are supposed to bring back?

Shyllon could usefully ask such a question rather than throw the question at a critic who is not responsible for preserving and protecting Nigerian artefacts. This is a wrong addressee.

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Queen-Mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London, United Kingdom. Will she finally be allowed to return home in Benin City from British exile since 1897? Will the British play the same game as they played when Nigeria asked for the sculpture for FESTAC?

What Shyllon calls my strident articles seem to have impressed some people including the authors of the Sarr-Savoy report who state at page 23 of their report:

‘On the informational website modernghana, a former functionary of the United Nations and a miltant citizen, Kwame Opoku published over 150 articles beginning in 2008 carefully and beautifully documenting a favourable case for the restitution of items of African heritage to Africa’.

Opoku is mentioned at least 9 times in the report. In the meanwhile, my articles have reached 236 at modernghana. Some of my articles will be found at museumsecurity network, pambazuka, africavenir, elginism. Opinions on my articles can also be found in Annex V below listing some writers who have found them useful. (18) One commentator, Paul Barford declared:

‘The Benin campaign of course owes much to the tireless activity and forceful arguments of one academic Kwame Opoku. The relative prominence of African art issues stem from colonial history and the size of the continent. (19)

A Legal Adviser of the National Commission on Museums and Monuments has written in his book Legal and Other Issues in Repatriating Nigeria’s Looted Artefacts (2009)

The cerebral pride of Africa, former lecturer in law at the University of Lagos, contemporary of some of our best minds and fervent lover of Nigeria and her heritage, Professor Kwame Opoku in various writings has revealed the locations of these items, he dreams of the day these things will be returned to their rightful owner. By his investigations, almost every European and American museum has some Benin objects. He listed some of the places where Benin bronzes are found and their numbers.’ (20)

Opoku is mentioned at least seven times in the book by Adebiyi who also attends the meetings of the BDG.

We note also that some of Shyllon’s PhD candidates mentioned my strident articles in their thesis and still obtained their doctorates. One of them wrote,’’ There exist researches on the protection of cultural property and also the return and restitution of cultural property which provide important insights into the development of this thesis’. (21).

f). An ‘all or nothing’ approach to restitution has proven to be a road that leads nowhere.

We do not know where Shyllon got this idea that I follow what he calls all or nothing approach. He is falling into the same line as Philippe Montebello and others adopted, alleging that we want the West to return all African artefacts. (21) We have consistently argued that a substantial proportion of looted African artefacts would have to be returned from the West and that what is to remain would have to be settled by the African and the Western parties. We have had to explain that ‘some’ does not mean’ all’. We have argued that the Germans must share with Nigeria the 508-580 Benin artefacts that they are keeping in the Ethnology Museum. Is this an all or nothing approach? Does Shyllon read my articles that he is ready and willing to condemn?

g). Be that as it may, the dissembling on the issue of restitution in the Leiden Statement is unfortunate. It is a backward step that is quite unnecessary. The Dialogue Group started unambiguously with the twin objectives of restitution and lease. They are two sides of the same coin, and it is quite unhelpful to abandon restitution in the Leiden Statement.

Shyllon thus states that the BDG was wrong in removing restitution from its agenda but argues that Still, the criticism of the Dialogue Group by Kwame Opoku leaves much to be desired.

What does Shyllon really mean? If the group was wrong in doing what they did, then it must be right to criticise them as he has done. But Opoku too should not be allowed to criticise them? What disqualifies Opoku from saying what Shyllon is allowed to say? Freedom of speech for one and ban on speaking for the other? A strange view from a law professor. Indeed, one could make a serious argument by saying that Kwame Opoku who is an independent critic may say what he likes but Shyllon, being a member or participant in the BDG surely should not publicly attack the group in writing

g) Shyllon ends his article as follows: It is suggested that restitution as a matter of interest to the Group should be reinstated when it convenes in Benin City in 2019. Restitution should at least remain as a vision of the Group, if not, for now, part of its mission.

If Shyllon feels that restitution should remain part of the agenda of the Benin Dialogue Group, what then is his real ground for launching an attack on Kwame Opoku, for criticizing the group’s removal of restitution from its agenda? Is he writing on behalf of some persons who think an African should not feel free to criticize them when they are wrong? An independent-minded African critic irritates those with racist ideas. Shyllon’s comments will now make it difficult for the group to re-insert restitution on their agenda if they do not want to lose all credibility. Without Shyllon’s comments and the consequential response, the group could have declared that their initial removal of restitution from their agenda for that session had been misunderstood by critics and re-insert the topic.

It is my turn to say that Shyllon should not have written the article as he did. He was there when the decision was taken to remove restitution from its agenda. He could have told them during the discussions that it was wrong so to decide. Not having done so, after the meeting, he could have informed the members about his opinion. Now he has publicly shown they were wrong and offered even more grounds than Opoku did to show why they were wrong.

If the Benin Dialogue Group does not want to discuss the restitution of Benin artefacts, who then will do that? Who will discuss restitution of Nok, Igbo Ukwu, Ife, Tsoede, Owo, Esie, Calabar and the others looted Nigerian artefacts in Western museums? And how long will they need to discuss Nigerian artefacts before they come to Ethiopian, Cameroonian, Ghanaian and other African artefacts looted in the colonial period?

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Hunter with antelope, Lower Niger, Nigeria, now in British Museum, London.

We take note of the Shyllon’s statement that Oba Ewuare II ‘delegated his uncle, Prince Gregory Akenzua, `a Professor of paediatrics to represent him’ and that ‘the Kings of Benin clearly know how to pursue claims for the return of their antiquities’.

Let us make no mistake. The decision to remove restitution of Benin artefacts from the agenda of the BDG is a great victory for the West and its museums, sweeping aside with a stroke decades of debates for the restitution of the Benin artefacts. If this succeeds, no other African peoples can ever hope for restitution of their looted artefacts. African scholars must be aware of these implications and decide which side they support. They cannot be neutral. They cannot be for both sides in this debate.

I must put on record my great disappointment at reading Shyllon’s attacks whether he did this on his own accord or on behalf of others who do not feel like doing so openly, does not matter. If they do not want criticism of their group, they should do the right thing. Furthermore, Shyllon cannot play party and judge in his own case. He has taken part in the decisions of the Benin Dialogue Group from the beginning to date. He should convey his views to them but not try to attack others and present himself as an impartial judge, praising others and critizising others. He has offered strong grounds for criticising the decision of the BDG to remove restitution from its agenda.

When I started writing on these issues some years ago, an African friend, at the highest levels of legal and judicial services of international organizations, drew my attention to the writings of a Nigerian scholar and ever since then I have read with interest and profit, all contributions by Folarin Shyllon that are easily available. I have quoted him in several articles although the first time he has referred to my contributions has been to criticise me. This latest article is one I would like to forget and ignore among his otherwise excellent contributions.

We may never know the truth about these unprecedented attacks, but it is disheartening that one of Nigeria’s leading authorities on these questions should write such a piece. He was definitely ill-advised, ill-inspired and his article was ill-conceived.

The authors of the Sarr and Savoy report fear that talking about circulation is mainly a way of not talking about the restitution issue…

Yes, and it's true. There is ownership, which must be clear. The issue of conservation capacities should be separated from the legitimate right of ownership. From this point of view, the objects should be considered as on deposit, on loan for a more or less long period, in the museums of the former colonial powers. The rationale of proposing long-term deposits in countries of origin as a solution must be reversed! This means that countries of origin, regaining ownership, will have rights to the images, which are important for different uses, and a say in the circulation of works of which they have regained ownership. Alain Godonou (22)

Kwame Opoku.


1.On the so-called Benin Plan of Action,


Art, Antiquity and Law, Vol. XXIII, Issue 4, 341-347, Dec.2018.

3. Nigeria To Borrow Looted Nigerian Artefacts From Successor

Opinion | We Will Show You Looted Benin Bronzes But Will Not Give ...

4. See Annex II

5. Peju Layiwola, Benin Art and the Restitution Question,

6. Annex III Document 3 from Sarr-Savoy Report


Opinion | Loan Of Looted Ethiopian Treasures To Ethiopia: Must ...


Anger mounts as UK museum offers to return looted Ethiopian ...

9 See Annex IV

10. Preface to Benin 1897. Com. Art and the Restitution Question by Peju Layiwola, 2010, Wy Art Editions, Ibadan.

11. Ibid. p.84, Shyllon,’Negotiations for the Return of Nok Sculptures from France to Nigeria: An Unrighteous Conclusion’.



African Arts with Taj: Proposed loaning of looted-Benin bronzes to ...

13. Peju Layiwola,

Walker and the Restitution of Two Benin Bronzes, By Peju Layiwola ...


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Prince Egun Agharesa Akenzua met Mark walker to receive the Benin bronzes

Tajudeen Sowole wrote on his web site, African Arts with Taj as follows:

‘'Prof Folarin Shyllon, Vice Chairman, UNESCO sub-Committee on Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property argued that the NCMM should have handled it with better caution. He noted that Walker did not put into consideration the fact that Benin as at the time of 1897 is different now, and under a nation state of Nigeria.

Shyllon cited an example of foreign countries where similar return of arterfacts happened from private hands and recalled that the artefacts being returned were handed over to the government. “For example, when some artefacts were returned to Ethiopia from a Scottish, the government received the works in Addis Ababa.”

Folarin however stated that given the situation created by Walker’s lack of understanding of the complexity involved and disrespect for ethics of international relation, “the NCMM should have been more careful in managing the situation.”

14. K. Opoku Egyptian Season Of Artefacts Returns: Hopeful Sign ... - Modern Ghana

15. Shyllon, ‘Negotiations for the Return of Nok Sculptures from France to Nigeria: An

Unrighteous Conclusion’ in Peju Layiwola (ed), op. cit. pp. 81 -89.

16. The Parthenon Sculptures: The position of the Trustees of the British Museum

The Acropolis Museum allows the Parthenon sculptures that are in Athens (approximately half of what survives from the ancient world) to be appreciated against the backdrop of Athenian history. The Parthenon sculptures in London are an important representation of ancient Athenian civilisation in the context of world history. Each year millions of visitors, free of charge, admire the artistry of the sculptures and gain insight into how ancient Greece influenced- and was influenced by- the other civilisations that it encountered. The Trustees firmly believe that there is a positive advantage and public benefit in having the Sculptures divided between two great museums, each telling a complementary but different story.

British Museum - Parthenon sculptures: position of the British Museum ...

17 More on the Benin bronzes issue - Elginism

18. See Annex III


20. Legal and Other Issues in Repatriating Nigeria’s Looted Artefacts, 2009, p.32.


Afolasade A Adewumi

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67 . Art and Cultural Heritage Mediation. Retrieved 6th July, 2014 from -cultural-heritage-mediation/; Coggins, C.C. 1998. A Proposal for Museum Acquisition Policies in the Future, International Journal of Cultural Property. Vol. 7, No. 2: 434 -437; Mayour, F. Problems and Scope, Illicit Traffic in Cultural Property, Appeal launched in 1994 by Director General of UNESCO; Fighting Illicit Traffic, Retrieved 6th July, 2014 from; Opoku K, Blood Antiquities in Respectable Havens: Looted Benin Artefacts Donated to American Museum. Retrieved 6th July, 2014 from; Opoku, K. Nigeria Reacts to Donation of Looted Benin Artefacts to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. 17 July 2012; Rollet-Andriane, L. Precedents in Return and restitution of cultural property. Museum. Vol XXXI, No.14 – 7; UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects: Explanatory Report. Prepared by the UNIDROIT Secretariat, Uniform Law Review, 2001-3: 476 – 564.68, A. loc.cit

69 Prunty, A.P. 1984.Toward Establishing an International Tribunal for the Settlement of Cultural Property Disputes: How to Keep Greece from Losing its Marbles. The Georgetown Law Journal. Vol. 72: 1155 - 1182; 70 Philippaki, B. 1979. Greece, Return and Restitution of Cultural Property, Museum Vol. XXXI, No.1:15 –

17 71 Bakula, C. Combating Trafficking in Cultural Property, The 1970 Convention: Evaluation and Prospects. Background Paper, second edition for participants in the Second Meeting of States Parties to the 1970 Convention Paris, UNESCO Headquarters, 20-21 June 2012; 72 Cordero, J.S. 2003. The Protection of Cultural Heritage: A Mexican Perspective.

Uniform Law Review. NS-Vol. VIII: 565 573



A Misstep

This is not the place to discuss the initiative of President Macron in Ouagadougou, nor the Sarr-Savoy report. Both have however been referred to because the Macron initiative took place before the Benin Dialogue Group meeting in Leiden as well as the commissioning of Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy to look into restitution or loan of African cultural objects to Africa. That being so, the prevailing mood, at least on one side of the debate, should have been taken into account, and the wholesale rejection of restitution as a matter of interest to the group should not have been so carelessly jettisoned. The point is being made because it gives fodder to some critics of the Benin Dialogue Group. In a reference to the Cambridge Statement, Kwame Opoku wrote: “We have the so-called Dialogue Group on Benin proposing a strange scheme whereby some of the looted Benin artefacts would be displayed in Benin City, but ownership of the artefacts would be with Western museums. And they find some Africans to approve of such a ridiculous and insulting proposal (emphasis added).”12 It is possible that Dr Opoku is unfamiliar with the resolution of the South KoreaFrench impasse with regard to the Oe-KyuJangGak royal archives.13. In 1866, the French navy plundered the Oe-KyuJangGak royal archives and the manuscripts/ books in 297 volumes ended up at the Bibliothèque Nationale. In 1991, the Koreans began asking for their return.14 It was not until 2010 that President Nicholas Sarkozy decided to return them to South Korea. As usual the librarians and curators were opposed to the idea. They raised the red flag of inalienability of cultural property in French museums and archives.15 A French court ruled that the royal manuscripts belong to the National Library of France. Eventually, a creative solution was found. The manuscripts would go back to South Korea on a lease basis and the lease contract would be renewed every five years. In the words of the French President: “We have agreed [on a plan] in which the lease of the documents will be rolled over every five years.” Consequently, although to this day the manuscripts remain in French ownership, physically they are in South Korea where they are destined to stay forever. There is therefore already a precedent for what has been proposed. It is not “a strange scheme”, as Opoku suggested. And it is ill-advised for him to dub it “ridiculous and insulting”.


From the start the Benin Royal Court has been an active member of the Dialogue Group. During his reign Omo N’Oba Erediauwa sent a representative to the meetings. Now that his son Omo N’Oba Ewuare II is on the throne, he too has been sending a representative to the Group meetings. At the Cambridge meeting, the first since Ewuare II ascended the throne, he delegated his uncle Prince Gregory Akenzua, a Professor of paediatrics to represent him.

12. Kwame Opoku, ‘Macron Promises to Return African Artefacts in French Museums: A New Era in African- European Relationship or a Mirage?’ Modern Ghana, 10 Dec. 2017, 13. Elginism, ‘France to Return S. Korean Royal Documents’ 12 Nov. 2010, ; Elginism, ‘France Will Return Korean Kings’ Books’ 6 Dec. 2010, ; Elginism, ‘French Court Rules on Disputed Korean Manuscripts’ 19 Jan. 2010, ; Elginism, Kelly Olsen, 30 Jan. 2012 ‘Korean Royal Books Looted by French in the 19th Century Get Colourful Welcome’, . 14 See Jongsok Kim ‘The Oe-Kyujanggak Archives’ (2002) VII Art Antiquity and Law 7. 15 Article L. 451-5 Heritage Code (Code du Patrimoine).

Prince Akenzua also represented the Oba at the Leiden meeting. Whilst both sovereigns continue to argue for the return of their ancestors’ antiquities, they felt it imperative for them to send delegates to the meetings knowing full well the limitations of the meetings. Furthermore, when Prince Charles visited Nigeria 6th-8th November 2018, it was reported by Nigerian newspapers that the Oba (King) of Benin requested the Prince of Wales to support the agitation for the return of some of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria.16 What is clear from this, despite what certain critics may say, is that the Kings of Benin clearly know how to pursue claims for the return of their antiquities. Is it by refusing to take part in the activities of the Dialogue Group that the antiquities will return? The author Opoku, referred to above, has over the years published many strident articles calling for the return of African artefacts. Yet no Benin bronze or other looted or stolen African artefact has over this period returned to Africa. Therefore, the reproach to ‘some Africans’ engaging in a dialogue with Western museums is misguided. Is half a loaf not better than none at all? An ‘all or nothing’ approach to restitution has proven to be a road that leads nowhere. Be that as it may, the dissembling on the issue of restitution in the Leiden Statement is unfortunate. It is a backward step that is quite unnecessary. The Dialogue Group started unambiguously with the twin objectives of restitution and lease. They are two sides of the same coin, and it is quite unhelpful to abandon restitution in the Leiden Statement. Still, the criticism of the Dialogue Group by Kwame Opoku leaves much to be desired. If the British Museum and the Ethnology Museum, Berlin were today to declare that they would release 100 pieces each of the Benin antiquities in their possession, is there a museum in Lagos, Abuja or Benin City that can adequately house them and ensure their safety and proper handling? The plan of action agreed to in Cambridge appears, in the meantime, to be a credible way to accept the yearnings of interested and concerned Nigerians in the matter. 16 Adelani Adepegba, ‘Return Our Artifacts, Oba of Benin Tells Prince of Wales’ The Punch, 6 Nov.

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Commemorative head, Benin, Nigeria, looted in 1897, now in Musée du Quai Branly, to be restituted to Nigeria.




n. 1801. An act of cultural vandalism

December 8, 2010

French Bibliothèque Nationale staff speak out against return of Korean manuscripts

Posted at 11:17 pm in Similar cases

Following the recent announcement by France’s president that the Bibliothèque Nationale would return numerous looted manuscripts to Korea has led to a backlash by librarians from the BNF. This issue (where the president makes decision without first discussing it with all stakeholders, followed by a subsequent backlash) is very similar to what happened with the Palermo fragment of the Parthenon Frieze in 2006, whereby the Italian president stated that the fragment would be returned, but had not discussed this with the museum in Sicily which held it, leading to a very lengthy delay before the fragment finally arrived in Athens.

The BNF staff have responded by creating a petition against the return of the manuscripts.


12.11.10 at 6:51 pm


I assume the officials at the French Bibliothèque National are conscious of what they are doing and are aware of the implications of their stand of the return of the looted manuscripts back to Korea.

One is surprised at the very feeble arguments presented for their opposition to the decision by Sarkozy to return the manuscript to Korea:

“It should not be forgotten that copies of most of these manuscripts exist in Korea”

That copies of the manuscript exist in Korea is no argument against the return of the original to the country of origin. The French could also make copies before the originals are returned to Korea. Or are copies only good for Korea, the land that produced the originals but not for France, the land that took them away by military force?

That “the decision was taken against the advice of the Bibliothèque and of the Ministry of Culture” raises issues of competence and authority that can be settled by French lawyers and the courts. This contention does not affect at all the juridical situation regarding the ownership of the manuscripts as far as Korea is concerned.

The argument that the decision

“is sure to strengthen the increasingly sustained claims for the return of cultural property that various countries are making to the archives, museums and libraries in France, Europe, and beyond.”

This may be so but Korea and other States that are claiming the return of artefacts looted from their countries do not need such decision to bolster up their claims. These demands have been made over decades are no novel issues. This is an old argument that if you give in here others will also come and claim their stolen objects. Does the Bibliothèque consists only of looted objects or objects of dubious acquisition?

“- the decision demonstrates the growing and worrying subordination of the law and heritage policy to politic economic and geostrategic considerations, at the risk of threatening the principle of inalienability in respect of public collections.

With all due respect to the protesters, the French should be the last to make such an argument for nowhere else are politics, economics, and geostrategic so intertwined with such considerations as in France. Think of the establishment of the Musee du quai Branly, the Bibliothèque National François Mitterrand and all the various cultural institutions that have been built on political considerations. The very names of these institutions show the political motivations at work.

“The risk of threatening the principle of inalienability in respect of public collections.”

This is no doubt a useful and necessary principle in preserving national cultural property but where it is clearly established that the objects have been stolen or looted, surely that principle should not apply. In any case, there is a procedure under French law for seeking a modification by application to the Minister of culture as has been done recently in the case of certain Egyptian artefacts and also in the case of human remains that were returned to South Africa and also the Maori heads that were returned to the Maoris, in New Zealand...

The protesters should be reminded that in several United Nations and UNESCO resolutions and Conferences, holding countries have been urged to return cultural objects to their country of origin.

ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums – 2001 Edition

Provides that:

6.2 Return of Cultural Property

Museums should be prepared to initiate dialogues for the return of cultural property to a country or people of origin. This should be undertaken in an impartial manner, based on scientific, professional and humanitarian principles as well as applicable local, national and international legislation, in preference to action at a governmental or political level.

6.3 Restitution of Cultural Property

When a country or people of origin seeks the restitution of an object or specimen that can be demonstrated to have been exported or otherwise transferred in violation of the principles of international and national conventions, and shown to be part of that country’s or people’s cultural or natural heritage, the museum concerned should, if legally free to do so, take prompt and responsible steps to co-operate in its return.

The Bibliotheque should have followed these principles in handling the Korean manuscripts.

We have always maintained the view that if museums and libraries would not seek to arrive at acceptable compromises with countries of origin of artefacts, the politicians will eventually step in and act in a way that may not please the specialists but will solve the issue. This is what has happened. Are the French museums and libraries going to learn from the case of the Korean manuscripts and act before politicians intervene in the other pending claims from the African, Asian and American States?

One has the impression that the protesters have forgotten the natural and logical interest of the Koreans in their manuscripts. It may also be questioned on what moral basis the French officials are protesting in a matter in which return is the honourable solution. The protest does not show any concern for the Koreans even though the protesters write about the Bibliothèque “demonstrating its high regard for the heritage of all civilizations across the world and its desire to make this heritage available to everyone. A high regard for all civilizations should move all to support the claims of the Koreans to recover their manuscripts taken away by brutal military force.


Document 3, Sarr- Savoy Report

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Here are links of leading website blogs on antiquities and artefacts that reported and analysed fully the various restitutions of the decade.

Looting Matters,

Portable Antiquity Collecting and Heritage Issues

/Trafficking Culture

Chasing Aphrodite

Museum Security Network

CulturGrrrl /

Illicit Cultural Property

Saving Antiquities for Everyone

Elginism /

The links below may be useful and show also how widely the issue was taken up by the press generally.


Museum Security Network, “Egypt retrieves prehistoric artifacts from Britain”


Recent examples of successful operations of cultural property ...


France Returns Ancient Treasures to Egypt : Discovery News

Return of Egyptian artefacts by Louvre re-awakens restitution debate ... / similar-cases/return-of-egyptian-artef.

AFP: France returns stolen Louvre relics to Egypt

BBC NEWS | Europe | Louvre to return Egyptian frescos


Ancient Korean royal books welcomed back home-The Korea Herald

South Korea: Controversies on the Return of Korean Royal Books ...


K. Opoku, ‘France returns looted artefacts to Nigeria: Beginning of a long process or an isolated act?’




2011: Germany - Turkey


Metropolitan Museum to Egypt

New York's Met to return 19 artifacts to Egypt: MENA | Reuters

Met Museum to return nineteen artefacts to Egypt » Elginism

New York Museum to return artefacts to Egypt


Boston Museum of Fine Arts to Italy

Boston Museum of Fine Arts Returns Italian Artifacts - New York Times

MFA agrees to return disputed art to Italy - The Boston Globe

Boston Museum of Fine Arts Returns Italian Artifacts - New York Times

The Cleveland Museum of Art

Cleveland Museum of Art will return tainted antiquities to Italy ...

Cleveland Museum of Art strikes deal with Italy to return 14 ancient ...

Cleveland Museum of Art Returns to Italy (2008) « Trafficking Culture

Cleveland Museum of Art Returns 14 Objects to Italy | Illicit Cultural ...

More on Cleveland Museum's Returns to Italy: 25-Year Loans ...


Getty Museum agrees to handover of 40 artifacts to Italy - Arts ... - CBC

BBC NEWS | Entertainment | US to return Italian antiquities

J. Paul Getty Museum | CHASING APHRODITE

J. Paul Getty Museum Returns to Italy (2007) « Trafficking Culture note/j-paul-getty-museum-re.

Metropolitan Museum of Art returns to Italy

NY's Met to return disputed Italian artifacts -

Metropolitan Museum Offers to Return 20 Disputed Works to Italy

Met to return Euphronios Krater to Italy » Elginism


Princeton University - Return - Looted Art - Italy - New York Times

Princeton University Art Museum voluntarily returns ancient sculpture

Princeton University Returns Art to Italy

Princeton Art Museum Agrees to Return 8 Antiquities to Italy ...

Toledo Museum of Art to Italy

Kaplis Returns to Italy « The Toledo Museum of Art

United States Returns Toledo Museum of Art's Smuggled Vase to ...

United States returns Toledo Museum of Art's smuggled sixth ...



Finders Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts To Peru

Finders Not Keepers: Yale Returns Artifacts To Peru .

Last of Yale's Machu Picchu Artifacts Returned to Peru After Years of ...

Yale agrees to return Machu Picchu artefacts to Peru - Telegraph


Dallas Museum of Art returns to Turkey

http://lootingmatters.blogspot Museum returns stolen artefacts

Penn Museum an "indefinite-term loan" to Turkey, not an ownership transfer.

Penn museum lends possibly plundered items to Turkey

Penn Museum Strengthens Partnership with Turkey, Agrees to

University of Pennsylvania Returns Looted Trojan Antiquities to Turkey




Out of Africa: Kwame Opoku’s Repatriation Advocacy

March 26, 2008 by CultureGrrl

Leaving Athens for Africa, for the moment—nothing I heard at the two-day “Return of Cultural Objects” conference last week in Athens articulated as comprehensively, intelligently and passionately the arguments for return of objects to their countries of origin as the long article by Kwame Opoku appearing in Monday’s Modern Ghana.

Opoku details and decries the various ways in which objects historically made their way from Africa to international museums, and he debunks in detail the arguments for leaving those objects where they are now. I don’t believe that everything should go back, as he appears to argue. (He previously took issue with my own views, as expressed in my LA Times Op-Ed on cultural-property issues.) But I do believe that source countries’ attachment to and passion for their heritage should be treated not dismissively (i.e., there are no Etruscans in modern Italy; more people can see more objects in Universal Museums than in the source countries), but with the utmost respect and seriousness.

A few excerpts from Opoku:

—The fact that the 1970 [UNESCO] convention does not apply

retroactively does not mean that the convention approves of all

acquisitions made before 1970. Before the convention, there were rules

of law in every legal system which prohibited illegal handling of the

property of others…. But it should also be added that the African States have not, to put it

mildly, been active enough to make use of the possibilities offered by

the Conventions. Many African countries have not even bothered to

ratify or accede to these instruments.

—The functions of the museum directors are primarily to preserve

evidence of history in the form of objects or documents. Here we have

these scholars telling the people of Benin (and by implication all

Africans) to forget history. They should forget the past and accept the

present situation whereby their most precious cultural objects, taken

by violence or stealth, are kept by western museums and private persons

in the West. This is surely another confirmation of my theory that when

it comes to discussing Africa, some western intellectuals and their

governments often request us to suspend our common sense and our

ability to think.

—What this argument [on behalf of the Universal Museum] states is that, no matter the initial mode of

acquisition, because of the stay of these stolen objects in Europe,

they have become better known and have gained universal reputation as

work of art. They have also acquired another value in that they are not

only a manifestation of a religious and political power of a

civilization but are now admired for their own aesthetic value and

craftsmanship. What an insulting argument. On this line of reasoning,

one could also argue that how ever bad slavery may have been, it has

enabled the rich variety and wealth of African culture to be known all

over the world.

—The argument…that Africans are unable to look after their cultural

objects…always comes up when the question of restitution is

raised. Would any court accept the argument of a thief that the owner of the

property cannot look after it properly and therefore he is not going to

return it?

—It has been argued in all seriousness that in view of the possibilities

of digitalization, there is no longer any real need for physical

repatriation…. What is meant by “virtual and visual return which is offered as alternative to physical repatriation”?

That we can see these objects via internet and also in the form of

photos? What about the cultural objects we require for religious and

ritual practices? Is the British Museum seriously suggesting that we

introduce internet into our cultural and religious practices, including

our dances and masquerades, instead of the physical objects? Can someone tell me how we can dance with a digitally repatriated mask?

There’s a lot more provocative commentary where that came from. To view it, go to the article of origin (linked above).

CultureGrrl | Page 126 | CultureGrrl - ArtsJournal

A Thoughtful, Detailed Rebuttal to My “Make Art Loans, Not War” Op-Ed

January 30, 2008 by CultureGrrl

I’m really getting knocked lately. But I don’t mind when it’s a thoughtful, detailed, intelligent and passionate response.

Kwame Opoku takes issue with my recent LA Times Op-Ed piece on the website:

Many of the stolen cultural objects cannot simply be left where they are even if the owners agree finally to donate or, lend some of them….These are not just art objects, as Lee Rosenbaum may think. Many embody the unity and the spirit of the particular African people. These objects have to be returned, even if symbolically, so that our peoples see and feel that the long exile of their gods and kings has ended….

Besides, why should those who have been deprived of their cultural objects even think, at this stage, of making loans of the same objects to those who have been keeping them and still even today largely refuse to consider the issue of restitution?

I will only say in self-defense that I never meant to suggest that everything should stay where it is. What I said is that “source countries, possessing more high-quality artifacts from their ancient pasts than they can adequately display, don’t need to get everything [emphasis added] back.” I did not say, nor do I believe, that they should not get anything back.

I see a little patch of common ground in this quote from Opoku: “These objects have to be returned, even if symbolically.” Some objects, certainly the ones that “embody the unity and the spirit” of a culture, should be physically returned. Others may be able to stay where they are on loan, with a clear acknowledgement by the exhibiting institution of the source country’s ownership.

Can’t we try to move from combativeness to mutually beneficial cooperation?

Having said that, I will acknowledge that museums are clearly aware of repatriation imperatives involving European countries. But as Opoku would surely argue, and as recent events in Southern California have illustrated, there’s much more work to be done in addressing the cultural-property concerns of other areas of the world, including Africa and Southeast Asia.

BlogBack: Kwame Opoku Responds to Michael Conforti

July 25, 2008 by CultureGrrl

Kwame Opoku, a tireless commentator on restitution issues (one of whose essays recently attracted a rejoinder on from Metropolitan Museum director Philippe de Montebello), responds to Michael Conforti Q&A About AAMD and Antiquities :


Friday, 25 January 2013

Kwame Opoku on the "Declaration on ...Universal Museums", ten Years On.

Download Kwame Opoku, " Declaration on ...Universal Museums: Singular Failure of an Arrogant Imperialist Project " on MSN, as usual, hard hitting, copiously annotated and right.

The Declaration on the Importance and Value of the Universal Museum (DIVUM) of 2002 in now 10 years old. [...] The DIVUM is a very remarkable document that differs essentially from other declarations and documents that include in their title “Universal”, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights . Whereas the latter aims at uplifting mankind from the miserable and abject conditions into which it has been plunged by unjust and oppressive systems and conditions, DIVUM was aimed at consolidating the results of oppressive systems and preventing the victims from attempting to reverse the results of imperialist adventures. In effect DIVUM was advancing the argument that there should be no attempt to seek to reverse the transfer of artefacts that had been acquired under colonial and other violent and oppressive conditions [...] The British Museum which had engineered the whole project was not one of the signatories but the handwriting of the museum’s officials is all over the document; the language and style of the DIVUM can be traced to Bloomsbury, London.

Kwame Opoku on the Recent Looting in Egypt and the Repatriation Debate

Kwame Opoku has a well-argued response ( Restitution and Recent Upheavals in Egypt , March 24, 2011) to the comments of the antiquity dealers and collectors lobbyists alleging that the recent looting in Egypt shows what a bad idea restitution of scattered cultural heritage to their source countries is. Those who are against restitution will use the present situation as an excuse for rejecting the restitution of certain items.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013 Cultural Property Repatriation News and Issues: 2013

Three Years' of Repatriation Blog

I started this blog three years ago. Its purpose was to separate the discussions of pre-1970 repatriation issues from the discussion on the main blog of the ongoing despoliation of sites by antiquity collectors. I sensed that the mixing of the two separate (in my opinion) issues was clouding the debate, and it is my suspicion that this was being deliberately done. So I wanted to explore it separately.

In contrast to the main (PACHI) blog, I never intended this blog to present any particular case or be a systematic overview of the subject, these are mostly just loose jottings. I did however try to record here the more newsworthy topics that were being discussed as they came up. I was curious how it breaks down by topic:

Parthenon 21

Turkey 14 (mostly in 2012)

'American museums' 9

Human remains 8 (New Zealand 5, Ainu 1, Namibia 1)

African art 9

Egypt 8 (2011 and 2012 only)

Benin/Nigeria 7 (Ghana 1)

Cambodia 7

China 5

Korea 3

Sri Lanka 3 (about one object though)

Russia 3

Italy 3

Greece 2

India 2

Melanesia, New Zeland Australia 2

South America, Ecuador, Peru 5

Native American 3

Central America 2

Armenia 1

Jordan 1

Libya 2 (2011)

Obviously, these results are skewed. They reflect what caught my eye rather than being a statistical survey. Nevertheless, it seems that the picture is not entirely an artefact of my own interests. There is a massive campaign on behalf of the Parthenon marbles. There was a lot of pressure from Egypt not only about current loot, but loot of an earlier period, though the latter seems to have quietened with Zahi Hawass losing his position in the Ministry. Turkey has now taken the lead in insisting on the return of pre-1970s losses, though the peak was rather more last year than this. The controversy about US museums and their attitudes will not go away. The Benin campaign of course owes much to the tireless activity and forceful arguments of one academic Kwame Opoku. The relative prominence of African art issues stem from colonial history and the size of the continent. Human remains taken in colonial times also raise many easily recognizable concerns. There seems to be a dearth here of South and Central American topics, but Donna Yates' blogs currently fill in those gaps quite well.

It does seem that the current repatriation debate does have certain foci. In 2014 I will give some thought as to where this blog is going, if anywhere. Comments welcome. I'd also like to hear from other bloggers doing the same topic.

Sunday, January 2, 2011

Sotheby's Retract Benin Mask from Sale at Request of Consigners

" Sotheby's Retract Benin Mask From Sale at Request of Consigners " Originally published on Paul Barford's Portable Antiquities collecting and heritage issues Blog (Sunday, 26 December 2010)


Well, here's a piece of good news, it is being reported on MSN this evening that Sotheby's has withdrawn a controversial sale of a Benin ivory hip mask from sale. For the controversy see several recent texts by Kwame Opoku and also Tom Flynn's coverage: ' Sale of looted Benin treasures "reprehensible and unconscionable", say Nigerian cultural activists (don't miss the Open University film embedded in it). If this is true, it shows that public opinion can sometimes hold sway over commercial interests.


Art and Risk in Ancient Yoruba,

Ife History, Power, and Identity 1300, Cambridge University Press,2015. Preface.

In the wake of a 2009 Ife exhibition, Dynasty and Divinity: Ife Art in Ancient Nigeria, initiated by Botin Foundation in Spain, several thoughtful articles were published that addressed these works around issues of cultural patrimony. ‘Ile-Ife Triumphs in the British Museum, London: Who Said Nigerians Were incapable of Looking after Their Cultural Artefacts,’ asks Kwame Opoku, in his blog entry of 18 April 2010. With another equally salient title, he challenges us: ’Are Major African Art Exhibitions Only for the Western World? Ife Art Exhibition Begins in Spain but Will Not Be Shown in Nigeria or Any Other African Country.’ (23 June 2009). As he inquires in the later piece: Do young African artists, unlike their European and American counterparts, not need to see such exhibitions? Soon all the experts on African art, including Ife art, will be Europeans who will be paid or generously funded by the rich American foundations to come and teach us African art…. [T]here should be reciprocity, mutual respect and a balance of interests. Collaboration should not be a one-way communication’’ (Opoku 2009). Evoking some of the same issues as related to these ancient African works, Opoku adds: In the absence of adequate pub lic information, one is left to wonder whether the exploitation of African cultural resources follows the same pattern as the exploitation of our mineral and other resources i.e. we supply cheaply to the great advantage of the West which nowadays does not even have to send in an army for whatever it wants as in the olden days. Somebody has to explain to the African peoples why we must continue to put our cultural resources at the disposition of the West when Western States do not show the least inclination to do the same for us. (Opoku 2009). Much more can (should) and hopefully will soon be done along these lines.


RESTITUTION DES BIENS CULTURELS ILLÉGALEMENT ACQUIS (SUITE) J'ai reçu le message suivant, très documenté, de Kwame Opoku, qui relaie activement les informations concernant l'attitude des grands musées d'art, concernant les demandes de restitution de divers pays, qui souhaitent pouvoir récupérer les trésors de leur patrimoine qui ont été exportés à la suite de vols ou de fouilles clandestines. Le débat n'est pas prêt d'être clos, mais il est bon de suivre l'évolution des mentalités. Ici il s'agit de quelque chose de spectaculaire, car c'est intervenu lors du World Economic Forum de Davos, cette année



July 29, 2008

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James Cuno (in Who Owns Antiquity? [2008]) takes six objects from the holdings of the Art Institute of Chicago to demonstrate its character as an "encyclopedic museum". The third piece is a bronze plaque from Benin that was acquired in 1933; Cuno speculates that it probably "left" the kingdom of Benin following the punitive raid by the British in 1897.

Kwame Anthony Appiah (Cosmopolitanism [2006]) also uses the Benin bronzes as he asks the question, "Whose Culture Is it, Anyway?" Some of the heirs to the kingdom of Benin, the people of Southwest Nigeria, want the bronze their ancestors cast, shaped, handled, wondered at. They would like to wonder at—if we will not let them touch—that very thing. The connection people feel to cultural objects that are symbolically theirs, because they were produced from within a world of meaning by their ancestors—the connection to art through identity—is powerful. It should be acknowledged. The cosmopolitan, though, wants to remind us of other connections. Kwame Opoku has also been commenting on these same bronzes (e.g. " Is James Cuno a “Nationalist Retentionist”? ",, July 4, 2008; see also a series of postings on ). His passionate essays have prompted me to hunt through some of the news archives to see what I could find about the dispersal of Benin Bronzes. I cannot pretend this is comprehensive list, but it gives a little bit of the background to this debate.

The "Benin Punitive Expedition" was assembled in January 1897 (see "The Benin Expedition", The Times January 20, 1897). This was in response to the killing of a British party around January 1, 1897 ("Massacre of a British Expedition in West Africa", The Times January 12, 1897). The accounts of the assault on Benin city are chilling. An eye-witness at the inquest into the death of one of the British officers mentioned that the British troops turned their Maxim guns on the defenders who fell from the trees "like nuts" ("The Death of Captain Byrne", The Times March 27, 1897).

This is the context for the removal of these bronzes from Benin City. When Appiah asks us to make "connections", these are the images that spring to mind.

"Loot" soon returned to England. One of the first examples was the display of "Some interesting bronzes from Benin City" that were put on display in the Royal Colonial Institute in London in June 1897. The notice that appeared in the Court Circular of The Times (July 1, 1897) mentioned the bronzes, "the precise origin of which is at present unknown". The bronzes were on loan from the Hon. G.W. Neville, MLC, "of Lagos"; The Times cryptically added that Neville "had accompanied Admiral Sir H. Rawson's recent expedition". (For Sir Harry Holdsworth Rawson see ODNB ; "he advanced to Benin city to punish the massacre in January of British political officers ... Benin was captured and looted, then accidentally burnt.")

Some of the material removed from Benin City passed into national collections. Ormonde Maddock Dalton and Hercules Read of the British Museum produced a catalogue, Antiquities from the City of Benin (London: British Museum, 1899). David M. Wilson's authoritative The British Museum: A History (London: British Museum, 2002) rather skates over the issue:

Franks and his colleagues ... were, as yet, not interested in the material as art - that came with the acquisition of the Benin bronzes at the end of the century ... (p. 161).

... [Dalton's] work on his seminal catalogue of recently acquired material from the Nigerian kingdom of Benin ... (p. 225)

Surely some mention of the circumstances of the acquisition would have been appropriate?

A taste for "Benin Bronzes" quickly developed. On September 12, 1899, a "Sale of Benin Bronzes" took place at "Mr J.C. Stevens's rooms, King-street, Covent-garden' in London (The Times September 13, 1899). This was described as "an unusually choice collection of very fine Benin bronzes" that "included many of the finest specimens yet offered, and mostly came from the palace and ju-ju house of the late King of Benin". The same auction rooms offered "A marvellous collection of BENIN BRONZES consisting of about 500 pieces" as one lot in June 1902 (see notice in The Times, May 17, 1902; report, June 4, 1902). These had been "taken by the British punitive expedition under the command of Admiral Rawson in February, 1897". Among the pieces sold were "ivory tusks carved with figures, animals, &c." (compare Cuno's Who Owns Antiquity? fig. 4 for a "Court of Benin Ivory").

A further selection of Benin bronze surfaced on the London market (in 128 lots) in May 1930 ("Benin Bronzes", The Times April 7, 1930). These came from the collection formed by George William Neville, a member of the "Benin Punitive Expedition". His obituary in The Times November 30, 1929 commented,

One of Neville's exploits was to accompany the punitive military expedition to Benin in 1897, from which he returned with a remarkable collection of Benin curiosities.

The 1930 report continued:

In the King's compound [at Benin] and the ju-ju houses were discovered numerous works of art in ivory, bronze, brass, &c., buried, in several instances, and covered with the blood of human sacrifice.

These pieces came from the same collection displayed at the Royal Colonial Institute back in the summer of 1897. A further example of the material from Benin City surfacing on the market is provided by the collection formed by Dr R. Allman, medical officer for the Benin Punitive Expedition. This was sold at Sotheby's in December 1953 (The Times December 8, 1953).

Can we ignore the way that these bronzes moved from Benin City to the market and thence to private and public collections? Kwame Opoku has been right to remind us of these shameful issues.


Nathan T. Elkins said…

Excellent post!

This reminds me of Kwame Opuku's

comment on "New Response to James Cuno."

He drew out a particular quote from Stone's review:

"I assume that many will hope and some I know will pray that this book represents the last death throes of a failed traditional world-view: the dominance of the many by the (very) few; the dominance of a Western scientific tradition over all others; the dominance of a closed view clinging, perhaps subconsciously, to what can only be described as colonial oppression. Perhaps if a dinosaur could have written a book arguing against its extinction, it would have read like this."

Advocates for the protection of cultural property and archaeologists are often labelled "cultural property nationalists," socialists, and other things. But what about those who want to be able to collect or sell whatever they want without any concern as to origin or the circumstances under which it entered the market? Certainly, the notion that, for example, "I am an American and my property rights are sacrosanct - I should be able to buy and sell whatever I want - I'm only helping impoverished citizens in Ukraine" is just as imperialistic.

29 July 2008 at 12:40

COTTER Imperilled Legacy for African Art, AUG. 2, 2012, NEW YORK TIMES.

Where does Africa itself stand in all of this? Is it merely the battleground on which science and commerce clash, a passive stretch of turf to be either righteously conserved or carved up and parcelled out? Or is it — could it be — an active, gainful partner in cultural exchange?

It could. Art-alert countries like Nigeria and Mali have stockpiles of objects in storage. Selections of them could be leased out to Western institutions, or even swapped for temporary loans of Western art. The idea that Africa would not be receptive to such exchanges is wrong. It has fine museums (in Bamako, in Lagos), impressive private collections (one is documented in Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie’s superb book “Making History: African Collectors and the Canon of African Art“), and at least a few sharp critics (check out Kwame Opoku at )


Africa, Repatriation, and Universal Museums

There have been some very interesting exchanges in recent days between Dr. Kwame Opoku and Phillipe de Montebello of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Dr. Opoku wrote an interesting and provocative letter to museum directors entitled Is legality a viable concept for European and American museum directors.

I have been quite familiar with Dr. Opoku’s scholarly work for some time, and it’s refreshing to see him continue to use the internet to broadcast his arguments; especially as he is a powerful voice for African repatriations, which often receive short shrift when compared to similar arguments for the Mediterranean or Central and South America.

TOM FLYNN The Universal Museum: A Valid Model for the 21st Century? Tom Flynn wrote in his acknowledgements, ‘Ton Cremers and Kwame Opoku continue to inspire through their determination to articulate contrarian positions on cultural heritage issues and thorny questions of reparation.


An Interesting Discussion: Kwame Opoku's Commentaries

Guest blogger Kwame Opoku continues to his prolific and insightful challenge of the Western museum establishment on matters of cultural patrimony and legal equity concerning looted African art in the West. His commentaries on Afrikanet draws the attention of significant readers and is a must read on the subject of African cultural patrimony and repatriation. He is also increasingly cited in other blogs that follow his frequent commentary.

Posted 26th July 2008 by S. Okwunodu Ogbechie

Labels: African cultural patrimony afrikanet kwame opoku

Recent reports that the British Museum and other Western museums are trying to forge a deal BBC-News Interview with Prof. Sylvester Ogbechie to return looted African artworks to Africa have prompted a lot of discussion. BBCNews interviewed me on the subject on September 4, 2017 and a clip of the interview is posted here .

I have written on the subject of repatriation of looted African artworks on this blog for the past ten years, and it is nice to see that Western museums are now realizing that they can no longer carry on as usual pretending that they have legitimate claims to looted African artworks. The proposed summit is therefore a good development and hopefully, it leads to credible action to redeem injustices visited upon Africans in their encounters with the genocidal order of slavery, colonization and ongoing Western economic imperialism and predation of the African continent…

I agree with Kwame Opoku that the policy of quiet diplomacy that has been pursued by African national governments, Nigeria specifically, for the return of these artworks has failed. At best, such negotiations will yield the return of inferior examples of African artworks while the best examples continue to remain in Western holdings. Any negotiations on the return of looted African artworks has to include discussions about reparations due to Africans for the century-long display, sales and monetization of these artworks and I think that aspect of the discussion is not negotiable. The British Museum owes the Benin Kings serious reparations for holding on to these artworks and they need to explain how they plan to pay such reparations.

Source: BBC-News Interview with Prof. Sylvester Ogbechie


Contested Cultural Heritage: A Selective Historiography, Helaine Silverman, Springer, New York,2010.

The author writes:

Of particular interest are the series of Web articles by Dr. Kwame Opoku (e.g., 2008) in which he argues, ‘How do a people remember their history when the records have been stolen by another State? The human rights of the Africa. Peoples… are being violated by this persistent and defiant refusal to return cultural objects[that] were not produced by the Europeans and Americans and were not meant for their use. Such a refusal also violates the freedom of religion in so far as many of the stolen African objects, for instance…the Benin altars… are necessary for the traditional practice of beliefs… Most of these objects should have been returned when the African countries gained Independence in the 1960s. The refusal to return the objects relating to power and culture is a denial of the right to self-determination.’

Kwame Opoku reflects on Cairo Conference on cultural heritage

SAFECORNER 05.08.2010

We thank Dr. Opoku and the Museum Secruity Network for making these insightful REFLECTIONS ON THE CAIRO CONFERENCE ON RESTITUTION: ENCOURAGING BEGINNING available to us. The article contains very useful notes and references as well.The April 7-8 Cairo Conference hosted by Zahi Hawass and Egypt’s Supreme Council of Antiquities can be viewed on New Tang Dynasty Television .

Dr Kwame Opoku is an indefatigable defender of African culture and arts and writes prolifically for the return of Africa, stolen loot.

JOSEPH NEVAMDOSKY. Review of Layiwola, Peju, Art and the Restitution Question. H-AfrArts, H-Net Reviews. October 2010.

“Of Desecrated History, Memories and Values in Peju Layiwola’s Recent Works,” by Akin Onipede (Department of Creative Arts at the University of Lagos), is a travail that laments the violation of a people’s cultural heritage and shows how Layiwola’s art excites the conscience to expose Western chicanery. Kwame Opoku is a polemicist on cultural affairs willing to take on the likes of anti-repatriation advocates, such as James Cuno (director of the Art Institute of Chicago). Opoku is noted for positing sharp and lucid rebuttals. In “One Counter-Agenda from Africa: Would Western Museums Return Looted Objects if Nigeria and Other African States Were Ruled by Angels?” he takes up the hoary issue of secure and suitable locations for repatriated objects; this leads quickly to observations on obscurantist African leaders, indigenous looters, and local nonchalance. He takes head on a practical consequence of repatriation: what to do with returned loot and where to chamber it?

There is a lot of petrol in these contributions, a fair share of angst and anger, retorts, and shifts in linguistic discourse from the language of the managers of art to the language of putative owners. The arguments for the repatriation of Benin objects are remarkably intelligent rather than histrionic. What remains wobbly and largely off stage is the fact that Nigeria’s museums are so unkempt and mismanaged as to not deserve that restitution.

African Museums in the Making Reflections on the Politics of Material and Public Culture in Zimbabwe, (Eds.) Munaradzi Mawere, Henry Chiwaura and Thomas Panganayi Thondhlana, Langaa Research and Publishing CIG, Mankon, Bamenda 2015.

This book mentions Kwame Opoku at least 7 times.


Culture crime news 30 June–06 July 2014 - Anonymous Swiss Collector


A Season Of “Miracles’’? Boston Museum Returns Looted Nigerian Artefacts

(4 July 2014, Modern Ghana)

The ever-erudite Dr. Kwame Opoku provides you with everything you need to know about the recent returns to Nigeria. Dr Opoku (like most of us) was quite surprised to see the Museum of Fine Arts return anything, let alone Nigerian objects. Any article he publishes is worth reading.


Museums, Heritage, Culture: Into the Conflict Zone | Kavita Singh ...

It is instructive to compare the essays written by Naeem Mohaiemen during and after the Musée Guimet controversy. Mohaiemen’s earlier article, ‘Tintin in Bengal’, was written in the thick of the events, when the first consignment of artefacts had reached France and the second was yet to leave Bangladesh.

In it, the author admits he had first been unsympathetic towards the protestors, but as they began to produce facts – inconsistent inventory lists, missing accession numbers, woefully low insurance values – he too felt that the exhibition was being managed poorly and with unseemly haste. Add to this a recent article by Nigerian-origin lawyer and crusader for the repatriation of artefacts to source countries, Dr Kwame Opoku, who averred that the Musée Guimet was filled with ‘thousands of stolen/illegal objects’, and Mohaiemen too began to feel anxious about the possible consequences of the exhibition.


Cultural Property, Law and Ethics (December 21, 2009). Yearbook of Cultural Property Law, Chapter 1, 2009. Available at SSRN:

‘Dr. Kwame Opoku, a frequent contributor to the debate concerning repatriation of African objects from Western museums, who wrote an essay that attracted a rejoinder on Afrikanet from de Montebello, critiqued the AAM loophole. Download This Paper - SSRN papers


Africa Update Current Issue - Central Connecticut State University

Included in this issue of AfricaUpdate are reflections on the repatriation of cultural heritage and a related conference that took place in Egypt earlier this year. The focus of Mr. Opoku's article is on the numerous looted artifacts in Western museums, and the determination of the countries, from which they were taken, to get them back. The author makes reference not only to the artifacts taken from African countries in the late 19th century but also to looted artifacts from countries such as Peru, Greece, Mexico and others. These countries have similar grievances over what is perceived as the wrongful appropriation of their national treasures. The author identifies Ghana, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mali and Egypt among the African countries seeking the return of their artifacts. Mr. Opoku provides useful suggestions on the subject and suggests that the full proceedings of the Cairo Conference should be published. We are grateful to Mr. Opoku for making us aware of the ongoing struggle by Africans and others to regain their national treasures.


Writing in 2010, Dr Kwame Opoku, an expert in the area, there are 'thousands of looted/stolen objects that are in the Louvre, Musée Guimet, Musée du Quai Branly and other French museums. Among priceless items in Europe are the Benin bronzes, which the British looted in the 1897 military aggression known as the Punitive Expedition, of 1897. The British stole thousands of the Benin bronzes, massacred the inhabitants of Benin City, executed some nobles, burnt the city, and sent the Oba of Benin, Ovonramwen into exile. The British kept many of the looted Benin items, but sold a lot to the Germans and others. The British Museum which refuses to state clearly how many of the bronzes it has is alleged to be detaining 700 bronzes whilst the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, has 580 pieces and the Ethnology Museum, Vienna, has 167 pieces. These museums refuse to return any pieces despite several demands for restitution. They even refuse to respond to requests by the Oba of Benin and other Nigerian bodies for restitution. On the other hand, they constantly proclaim that there has been no demand for restitution. Their lawyers could tell them that there is no rule in International Law or Municipal Law preventing a holder of a looted/stolen item from returning it to the owner even if there has been no demand for restitution.'


The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Redefining Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum, Routledge Chapman & Hall, 2011. Tristram Besterman writes:

‘That description captures the undeniable pleasures and enlightenment experienced by those who can get there when they wander through well-lit galleries in London, Paris, New York and Madrid. After all,’ The British Museum’s collection is world-wide in origin and is intended for use by the citizens of the world’. But as the independent commentator and strong advocate for restitution, Kwame Opoku points out, the Director of the British Museum does not appear to be embarrassed that Kenyans, Ghanaians, Nigerians, Ethiopians and others have to come to his museum in London in order to seek materials for their history. That some citizens are privileged’ to be able to sample aspects of cultures from around the globe in one place is a social good, particularly if it is a good of creative inspiration, combats prejudice and leads to understanding between peoples. Bringing ancient Chinese, Persian, Mesopotamian and Nigerian culture to London is a political as well as cultural act. But the traffic is usually one way. The 2009 exhibition Dynasty and Divinity in ancient Africa, opened in Santander, toured to New York and London, but was not even seen any African country’. p.250.

As Opoku patiently explains,’ I often think that many of the controversies regarding restitution could be solved or at least be rendered less acrimonious if the holding museums used sensitive and less offensive language and behaviour’. P.251.

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