April 5, 2009

Looted Benin artefacts could be worth over £1.3 billion

Posted at 1:02 pm in Similar cases

Mnay excuses are made by museums for continued retention of disputed artefacts. These aretefacts are often important to the original owners from a cultural perspective, but in many cases also have a significant monetary value attached to them that can not be ignored.

From:
The Punch (Nigeria)

Looted Benin artefacts, others may be worth N313bn
By Akeem Lasisi
Published: Thursday, 2 Apr 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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2 Comments »

  1. Benin National Congress said,

    06.10.09 at 3:25 pm

    Looted Benin Artefacts of 1897; Benin National Congress (BNC) seeks President Yar Adua’s intervention! Being the title of an open letter to President Yar Adua and the Foreign Affairs Minister, Sunday 7th June 2009.
    Your Excellency,

    It is with a great sense of grief and respect that we wish to formally and most respectfully reinstate our commitment to the cause of the unconditional repatriation of all looted Benin Artefacts currently in the custody of Britain and other Western countries, which were carted away during the historic invasion of Benin Kingdom by the British Government in 1897; and for which we seek your very dispassionate presidential support. The Benin National Congress as you may well know is a foremost pan Edo socio-cultural organization that has been at the forefront of the struggle for the just and unconditional repatriation of all Benin Artefacts which were looted from the palace of the Oba of Benin; ‘primitive’ museums and the shrines of the people of the Kingdom under the false pretext of colonialism; the struggle for review of all Edo Oil wells that were unjustly appropriated to Ondo and Delta states (during the Babangida regime) as well as our recent campaign for amnesty for the 27 convicted soldiers at Akure, amongst other noble agitations.
    History is replete with dialogue and exchange of correspondences that have been made in the direction of this noble repatriation cause well over ten decades ago by the hospitable people of Edo State to the various arms of Government and people of Great Britain to no avail; whereas these objects are currently a great source of tourist revenuers and pride to the people and Government of Britain, the Binis whose ancestors are the organic makers of these priceless works of arts are subjected to the same fate like others in taking a view of them at their various museums of abode across the globe. Mr. President will agree that it is common knowledge that one significant activity that signifies the end of a war- is the faithful and unconditional return of the prisoners of war and all material substances seized or secured by all sides of the conflict; in the case of the inglorious Benin Massacre of 1897, not only was the Oba (Oba Ovonromwen) illegally deposed, our people were subjected to all manners of dehumanization and the brazen looting of their artefacts; and the latter are yet to be returned even one hundred and twelve years after.
    The main objective of this letter is seek your formal support even though the relevant ministry or agencies are aware of this agitation and details, abate very uncomplimentary commitment to our cause, we believe that your intervention can stern the rising disenchantment and near-resort to self help by Edo people in Nigeria and the Diaspora over the more than a century old demand. Commonsensically, Mr. President, Foreign policy is about give and take, and if a section of the Nigeria federation (like Edo State) has been robbed by another country, it behoves on (your) Government to establish or determine the fact and circumstances, after which formidable actions are deployed towards the resolution of such agitation. This fair sense of belonging has NOT been felt by our people, and hence we seek your prompt intervention with a view to nipping in the bud, an agitation that has the capability of casting aspersion on the theory of Nigeria’s federation, the concept of international justice and diplomacy.
    It will be fair and patriotic for the presidency to review its foreign policy relations with Britain within the context of the backlog of oppressive tendencies which have undermined Nigeria’s collective aspiration-to be together for peace, progress and justice, as any attempt to down-play these fundamentals’ of unity and accord will always have far-reaching negative effects on our national integrity, if not now, certainly later. We wish to reinstate our commitment to the Ninety-day ultimatum previously canvassed to all British High Commissions, (dated 14th April 2009) failing which we will sensitize Edo people and all peoples of good conscience and solidarity to embark on peaceful protests including the collation of signatory for the august-and promising-international court of justice attention to this over a century old nation’s inhumanity to a nation. This is no doubt is the height of absurdity of power-play by Britain at the international arena.
    We look for to your warmth intervention.
    Omowemwen Imadiyi- Vice President, Benin National Congress
    Osazee Erhiamatoe- Secretary General- Benin National Congress
    Cc; Comrade Adams A. Oshiomhole, Governor of Edo State.
    1. Chief Ojo Maduekwe, Minister for Foreign Affairs
    2. Minister for Justice and Attorney General of the Federation
    3. Minister for Tourism, Culture and National Orientation
    4. All Members of the National Assembly
    5. Ethnic Nationalities Movement of Nigeria
    6. Nigerian Union of Journalists
    7. Opinion Leaders and Leaders of thought- Edo State
    8. Edos in Diaspora
    9. Nigerian Bar Association
    10. National Association of Nigerian Students.

  2. Edo Unity League said,

    08.10.09 at 2:50 pm

    It is shameful that after 100 years, British government is yet to come to terms with the reality that it is perceived as a sturbone roggue because she still hold on to priceless objects looted from Benin and Egypt despite rising pressures to repatriate same. As a socio-cultural group coalition in Edo State, we have resolved to support Benin National Congress in dragging Britain to a court of competent jurisdiction over her refusal to yield sound rationalizations. It is akward that Britain that prides itself as apostle of justice will shamelessly hold on to looted properties of a kingdom that are worth over 31.billion pounds.

    We think that as soon as we are through with the collation of signatories of those to stand as plaitiff, which in our view must be 2009 persons.

    Eboigbe Samuel

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