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Looted Benin artefacts could be worth over £1.3 billion

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.

The Punch (Nigeria) [1]

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.”