January 24, 2011

Sotheby’s to auction disputed “Oba” mask from Benin

Posted at 2:08 pm in Similar cases

Yet again, an item that’s ownership is disputed is coming up for sale through one of the large auction houses. Like the more well known Benin Bronzes, the artefact in this case originated from the African kingdom of Benin.

I should point out at this stage that I’m slightly behind with posting articles at the moment – and as a result, the outcome of this story has already been determined. I will post the later coverage of it in due course.

Financial Times

Sotheby’s to auction ‘Oba’ mask
By Susan Moore
Published: December 20 2010 02:02 | Last updated: December 20 2010 02:02

A 16th-century ivory pendant mask, one of the last great masterpieces of Benin sculpture remaining in private hands, is to be offered for sale at Sotheby’s London.

The mask, to be auctioned in February with an estimate of £3.5m-£4.5m ($5.4m-$6.9m), is thought to have been worn by the “Oba” or king of the west African city-state on ceremonial occasions. Only four other ivory masks of this age and quality are known, all of which are in museums.

Standing at 22cm high, the mask is being sold by the descendants of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Gallwey, deputy commissioner and vice-consul in the Oil Rivers Protectorate in 1891, who took part in the infamous Punitive Expedition of 1897 in what is now southern Nigeria.

In response to the massacre of a previous British-led invasion force, naval and protectorate troops deposed the king and captured, looted and burnt the city of Benin. The admiralty confiscated most of the booty and auctioned it off to defray the costs of the expedition, although a sizeable group ended up in the British Museum. Among them is another of the same group of ivory masks.

The technical skill of these cast bronze and ivory ritual sculptures astounded western audiences, and the dispersal of the Benin treasures paved the way for a reassessment of African art by artists and scholars.

When Jacob Epstein saw this piece in an exhibition in London in 1947, he asked the family if he could exchange it for one of his sculptures. Its whereabouts remained unknown until the family contacted Sotheby’s last year.

Jean Fritts, director of African and Oceanic art at Sotheby’s, said: “It has an amazing, untouched surface which collectors love. Its honey colour attests to years of rubbing with palm oil.”

From the same collection, and offered alongside, are a carved altar tusk, two ivory armlets, a rare bronze armlet cast with Portuguese figures and a bronze sculpture usually described as a tusk stand.

A bronze head of an Oba of around 1575-1625 was sold for a record $4.7m in 2007. The auction record for any African work of art is €5.9m.


‘Stolen’ African treasure up for auction in London

AN IVORY mask ‘looted’ during a British invasion of Benin, West Africa, in 1847 is to be auctioned at Sotheby’s in London.

The 16th century mask, which was kept by the family of British commissioner, Lt Col Sir Henry Galway, before resurfacing recently is expected to reach 5 million (GBP) at auction.

Earlier this year, we examined the ongoing debate over Britain’s acquisition of priceless African artefacts.

Historian and professor Richard Pankhurst – son of suffragette Sylvia Pankhurst – and one of the founding members of AFROMET (Association For the Return Of the Magdala African Treasures) said that African artifacts should be returned to their country of origin.

He said: “These treasures belong in Africa, as that’s where they were looted from,” says British-born Pankhurst, who now resides in Ethiopia and specialises in Ethiopian studies. “People of those countries should be able to see the treasures their ancestors created.”

However, the British Museum – which possesses African artefacts including bronzes from Benin, Nigeria and Ethiopian tabots (that can only be viewed by priests and not by the general public) – feels that it is necessary for these items to be represented in their collection.

“It is not the case that all African material in the Museum’s collection is ‘looted,’ ” says Hannah Boulton from the British Museum. “We feel it is essential that the diverse and varied cultures of Africa are represented in the collection so that our international audience can understand the impact of African material culture on the wider world.”

What do you think? Should the artefact be returned to Benin?

Published: 22 December 2010

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