December 14, 2008

When will Western museums return their looted artefacts?

Posted at 1:56 pm in Similar cases

Kwame Opoku talks about the accusations from museums that there is no formal demand for the return of artefacts – when in many cases there is a demand, but the institution would prefer to ignore it or not acknowledge it as a formal request.


Will western Museums now return some of the looted/stolen artefacts?
Datum: 14.12.08 21:46
Kategorie: Kultur-Kunst

Von: Dr. Kwame Opoku


“The restitution of those cultural objects which our museums and collections, directly or indirectly, possess thanks to the colonial system and are now being demanded, must also not be postponed with cheap arguments and tricks.”
Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause (1)

We have often heard from those holding on to the looted/stolen Benin artefacts that there has not been any demand for their return by the owners. This is, of course, a blatant lie which often reminds one of an absurd theatre piece. A performer states clearly a view point and immediately thereafter, another character tells the audience that so far no such statement has been made. We have the remarkable situation in which the King of Benin, the Oba, writes in an introductory note in the catalogue of the exhibition Benin: Kings and Rituals -Court Arts from Nigeria requesting the return of some of the Benin cultural artefacts. Almost immediately thereafter, we have directors of four museums organizing the exhibition with the co-operation of Nigeria declaring in a preface that they have no intention of returning these objects and advising the Nigerians to forget the past and look to the future. (2) The Benin demand was also stated by the Enogie of Obazuwa, brother of the Oba, at the opening of the exhibition on 9 May 2008. Some months after the exhibition in Vienna, the show which went to Paris (October 2, 2007-January 6, 2008) moved to Berlin (February 7-May 25, 2008) and we had people from the Berlin Ethnology Museum creating the impression that there had been no request for the return of the Benin bronzes even though at the opening of the exhibition, the Nigerian Minister of Tourism, Culture and National Orientation, Prince Adetokumbo Kayode, had clearly stated the wish of the Nigerians to have back their cultural objects. (3) What kind of game is this?

In response to the declaration by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum of their willingness to consider demands for the return of the Benin objects, (4) the Benin Royal Family has once again sent out a formal request for the return of cultural artefacts. In the letter published below, Edun Agharese Akenzua, brother of the present Oba, Erediauwa, both great-grandsons of the famous king, Oba Ovonramwen, whose resistance to imperialist domination led to conflict and eventual invasion, looting and burning of Benin City by the British, recounts the history of the invasion of 1897 (5) and explains the significance and functions of the Benin Bronzes, especially, their use as records of the history of Benin:

“At the time Europeans were keeping their records in longhand and in hieroglyphics, the people of Benin cast theirs in bronze, carved on ivory or wood. The Obas commissioned them when an important event took place which they wished to record.”

The letter refers to the Benin exhibition in Vienna to which the Oba made contributions and also sent a powerful delegation. (6) It is also recalls that the king made an appeal regarding the return of the Benin Bronzes:

“The King appealed to the Austrian authorities to show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us (Benin) some of these objects which found their way to your country. They are cultural property and heritage of Benin in the same way as the Stone of Scone is to Scotland and other properties are to other countries of the world where cultural properties have been forcefully taken.

The letter furthermore addresses the same appeal to the organizers of the Benin exhibition in Chicago, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Field Museum as well as the authorities there i.e. to return some of the Benin artefacts just as some other countries, Italy, Ethiopia, Greece and Egypt have in recent times recovered their looted cultural objects. We should note also that the demand is for “some of these objects”. We have often been obliged to point out that in the English language “some” does not mean “all”. Certain opponents of restitution, including a mischievous director of a famous museum in New York, manage to interpret “some” as “all” in order to make the modest demand appear as extreme and to avoid the consideration of the request. Above all, they seek to hide the greed and insensitivity of the museum directors of Western Europe and America. How many objects will be transferred eventually will depend on negotiations between the parties. One would expect a museum, such as the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin which has 580 of the Benin Bronzes to return at least 380 pieces to the legal owners.

It should be noted that although the letter is addressed to the Board of Trustees, Art Institute of Chicago, its intent and purpose is to appeal once again to all those institutions in Europe and America (Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne, Museum für Völkerkunde, Hamburg, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg, Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden, Museum für Völkerkunde, Leipzig, Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde, Leiden, British Museum, London, Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art, New York, Pitt-Rivers Museum, Oxford, University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and

Anthropology, Philadelphia, Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde, Stuttgart, Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna and others) that hold Benin Bronzes to return some of these objects to the people of Benin so that they may have back their records and continue their history and development in the way they choose.

The British Museum and the British Government bear a great historical responsibility in the question of restitution. The British Government was responsible for sending its army in 1897 to attack, loot and destroy Benin City.

The sale of the loot was the decision of the British Government and the British Museum has acquired a considerable amount of the looted objects under circumstances which have not been clearly explained. Moreover, connivance between the British Government and the British Museum make it appear as if the stolen/looted objects could never leave the museum because of the de-accession policy of the museum based on an act of Parliament. The British Museum has managed to create the impression that no one has asked for the restitution of the Benin objects. In the meanwhile, the venerable museum has been selling the Benin Bronzes and even sold some to the Government of Nigeria, the country from which the British looted the objects in 1897. The legality and the morality of such a transaction have not been clearly established. (7)

The letter is dated 9 September 2008 and as far as I know there has been no reaction from any of the concerned museums and institutions. Surely, four months should be enough for issuing a preliminary response or

acknowledgement on a matter about which all these institutions had been informed long ago. Moreover, the institutions should on their own have acted long ago since the facts of the case have been known to all and did not happen over-night. (8)

An essential step in this process of restitution would be a complete disclosure by the museums of the number and type of Benin artefacts they hold at the moment or have held in the past and their present whereabouts. (9) A simple catalogue, with images of these artefacts would surely not be beyond the means of even the poorest museum in the Western world. The surprise is that many museums have not produced complete records of their Benin objects even though one reason advanced for keeping the objects is the education and enlightenment of the general public. How can this objective be fulfilled when the objects are mostly kept in depots and only occasionally revealed to the general public? Sometimes those seeking information on such objects are told they must see the curator or the director for access to the particular objects. I have made similar experience in trying to see looted Asante gold and royal regalia.

The Art Institute of Chicago managed to hold an exhibition on Benin bronzes without including even a single one of the 20 Benin objects it possesses. The tremendous developments in the electronic media have not greatly modified the attitude of the museums in this respect. Some show digital images of a few Benin objects.

The Field Museum, Chicago states clearly on its home page that it holds 400 Benin Bronzes and that almost all of them come from the 1897 loot, by way of gift from the collection of A. W. F. Fuller.

“Benin Ethnographic Collection-The Benin collection of 400 objects includes wood sculptures, hide fans, and cast brass, ivory, and beaten brass objects. It is one of the Museum’s most significant African collections both in terms of artistic worth and monetary value. Half of the collection was donated to the Museum by Captain and Mrs. A.W.F. Fuller, and the remainder was purchased earlier this century by the Museum. Except for a few recent ethnographic objects, the entire collection dates to the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897. While some of the objects may be dated stylistically to the 17th century, no definitive assessment has been conducted.”

The museum also produced an extensive catalogue of an exhibition in 1962, entitled the Art of Benin, edited by Philip J.C. Dark. The catalogue gives a list of short descriptions on 391 object and photos of some 48 objects. The Museum for Ethnology, Leipzig, published a book, Kunst aus Benin, (1994) with photos of some 68 Benin bronzes out of its collection.

Armand Duchâteau’s book, Benin – Kunst einer Königskultur (1989) contains some 90 photos of Benin objects in the Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna and provides information on some other 46 objects. There is an English version of this book by Duchâteau, Benin Royal Art of Africa, Prestel Verlag (1995).

Taking into account all that has been said and written about the need to return some of the stolen/looted Benin artefacts to Benin, and especially the debates generated by the exhibition, Benin: Kings and Rituals – Court Arts from Nigeria (Vienna, Paris, Berlin and Chicago) and the re-issuance of this formal demand, it will be difficult for any honest person to declare they were not aware that there had been a demand for the return of some of the artefacts to the lawful owners. Besides, as we have argued elsewhere, given the known and widespread knowledge about the history of these artefacts, it is clear that there is no need to wait until the owners have made a demand before starting procedures for repatriation. The United Nations, UNESCO and ICOM have repeatedly called on those holding such artefacts to initiate discussions with the countries or communities of origin with a view to repatriation. (10)

Another issue that has to be discussed and settled is the question of compensation for the long detention of these cultural objects. It cannot be enough simply to return these objects and say “Thanks”. It can be assumed that the deprivation of a people of its most valuable cultural and religious artefacts and symbols results in considerable loss, both material and immaterial. Not only do the people no longer have the physical use of those objects but also the spiritual nature of these objects must, as a result of the deprivation result in doubts and questions as to the efficacy and powers of the objects. In a case such as Benin where the Oba has religious and political attributes, the loss of his symbols of power and religiosity must result in loss of prestige with various consequences on the political and social order of the community. Some compensation, however difficult it may be to assess, must also be envisaged in any eventual settlement.

From the side of the holders of the Benin Bronzes, it must be assumed that some benefit has been derived from the possession of these objects and hence the reluctance to repatriate. The overall increase in the prestige of the institutions holding these African artefacts cannot be neglected even if it is difficult to assess. The entrance fees to exhibitions organized specifically on Benin or African arts must have generated funds, including entrance fees which are either generally paid for entry into the museum or to special exhibitions. Surely part of this amount must be transferred to the owners of the objects displayed.

Some museums, like the British Museums and the Penn Museum, charge for the use of the images of the Benin objects by way of copyright and other “proprietary rights”. Should some of these fees not go to the owners of the objects? We leave aside how far back the calculation of such compensation should go and the method for calculation for others more qualified than ourselves.

Restitution is, in the complete sense of the concept, not completed by the return of the object, even though this is an important element in the process. Restitution is aimed at putting the aggrieved party, as far as possible, in the situation he or she would have been had the aggressor not deprived him or her of the object in question. Thus for example, if you unlawfully take away my Mercedes Benz, it is not enough to return the vehicle to me. There will be questions about the condition of the vehicle. Has it been damaged? Has there been any wrongful usage? In the case of cultural objects such matters may be difficult to asses but that does not mean they should not be considered. For instance if the artefacts are religious objects which only the high priest of the particular religion may look at or touch, what happens when they are exposed to the public in Western museums and are thereby desecrated? Should there be no compensation also for the pain resulting from desecration, in addition to the actual necessity to secure alternative objects? Should there not be compensation for the adjustment that the society had to make as a result of the loss? These are difficult questions with no easy answers but why should those guilty of stealing cultural objects have an easy way when those deprived have suffered? We are here concerned only with damages resulting from the looting and burning of cultural objects. The wider question of compensation for the destruction caused by the deliberate looting and burning of Benin City will not be discussed here.

We sincerely hope that all concerned will act in good faith and leave aside spurious arguments which are only intended to delay solutions to an issue which concerns not only Nigeria and the African continent but mankind as a whole. Others have received some of their stolen cultural artefacts back so why not the people of Benin?

Given the history of the reaction of Western museums to requests for restitution of looted/stolen cultural objects, it might be necessary and prudent to start preparations for legal actions against the present holders of the looted Benin objects. As the negotiations between Peru and Yale University indicate, not all parties seem willing to adhere to agreements of restitution. Such agreements do not necessarily lead to actual and immediate restitution of the objects. (11) Moreover, the issue of the legality of the possession of Benin Bronzes by Western museums has never been submitted to a judicial body for determination.

Kwame Opoku, 14 December 2008.


(1) “Die Rückgabe jener Kulturschätze, die unsere Museen und Sammlungen direkt oder indirekt dem Kolonialsystem verdanken und die jetzt zurückverlangt werden, sollte ebenfalls nicht mit billigen Argumenten und Tricks hinausgezögert werden”,

Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause, p.185, C. Bertelsmann, München 1984.

2) Barbara Plankensteiner (Ed), Benin: Kings and Rituals – Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck, 2007, pp.13-15. See also, Kwame Opoku “Benin to Berlin Ethnologisches Museum: Are Benin Bronzes made in Berlin?”

3) “Höfische Kunst aus Nigeria und der Spanische Bürgerkrieg“
Kwame Opoku, “Berlin Plea for the Return of Nigeria’s Cultural Objects; How often must Nigeria ask for the Return of Stolen Cultural Objects?”

4) Kwame Opoku, “The Art Institute of Chicago Distances itself from Cuno’s Book”

5) Ekpo Eyo, “Benin: The sack that was,” ”The Dialectics of Definitions: “Massacre” and “Sack” in the History of the Punitive Expedition”, African Arts, 1997, Vol. XXX, No.3, pp.34-35.

Wikipedia, “Benin Expedition of 1897”

Frank Willet, “Benin” in Afrika: Kunst und Kultur (ed.) Hans-Joachim Koloss, Prestel Verlag, Munich, 1999 p. 43 states that Phillips and his troops had peaceful intentions, and that the guns they had with them had been packed away and not ready for usage.

Readers will forgive me for returning once again to the story of the invasion of Benin by the British. The tendency of some Western writers to hide or underplay the violent nature of the British aggression compels us to tell the true story of one of the most brutal actions of the British imperialists. The story of Benin has been told several times but I find the short account by Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie very useful:

“In February 1897, an elite British force of about 1200 men (supported by several hundred African auxiliary troops and thousands of African porters) besieged Benin City, capital of the Edo Kingdom of Benin, whose ruler, the Oba Ovonramwen sat on a throne that was a thousand years old. The British Punitive Expedition used Maxim machine guns to mow down most of the Oba’s 130,000 soldiers and secure control of the capital city. They set fire to the city and looted the palace of 500 years worth of bronze objects that constituted the royal archive of Benin’s history, an irreplaceable national treasure. The king and his principal chiefs fled into the countryside, pursued by British forces who lay waste to the countryside as a strategy to force the people of Benin to give up their fugitive king. According to Richard Gott, for a further six months, a small British force harried the countryside in search of the Oba and his chiefs who had fled. Cattle was seized and villages destroyed. Not until August was the Oba cornered and brought back to his ruined city. An immense throng was assembled to witness the ritual humiliation that the British imposed on their subject peoples. The Oba was required to kneel down in front of the British military “resident” the town and to literally bite the dust. Supported by two chiefs, the king made obeisance three times, rubbing his forehead on the ground three times. He was told that he had been deposed. Oba Ovonramwen finally surrendered to stem the slaughter of his people. Many of his soldiers considered his surrender an unbearable catastrophe and committed suicide rather than see the king humiliated. A significant number, led by some chiefs, maintained guerilla warfare against the British for almost two years until their leaders were captured and executed. The remaining arms of the resistance thereafter gave up their arms and merged back into the general population.”

6) Kwame Opoku, “Opening of the Exhibition Benin: Kings and Rituals-Court Arts from Nigeria.”

Kwame Opoku. “Report and Comments of the exhibition Benin: Kings and Rituals.”

7) Martin Bailey, “British Museum Sold Benin Bronzes”

Dalya Alberge, “Museum Sold Benin Bronzes for £75 each”,

“Where do objects in the Pitt Rivers come from?”

Rita Reif, “The Royal Sculpture of Benin: Beyond African Folk Art”

8) See Kwame Opoku. “Is the Absence of a Formal Demand for Restitution a Ground for Non-Restitution?”

9) Most European and American museums have some Benin objects.

According to Charlotta Dohlvik, Museums and their Voices: a Contemporary Study of the Benin Bronzes, (Master’s Dissertation, May 2006, Göteborg University): “the largest collection of Benin items are found at the Ethnological

Museum in Berlin”. The author also found out that the “collections of Benin heads are strongly concentrated in museums of Western Europe and the United

States” and that “The often-heard statement about the collection of Benin material being dispersed all over the world is thus a point of description that should be expressed with some moderation”. p.29

Listed here below are some of the places where Benin bronzes are found and their numbers, as far as we can tell. This is not an attempt to be complete but to give the general reader an idea about how widespread these stolen art objects are. For a complete list, consult Philip J.C. Dark, An Introduction to Benin Art and Technology, 1973, Oxford University Press, London, pp. 78-81. Useful information can be found in Barbara Plankensteiner (Ed) Benin: Kings and Ritual – Court Arts from Nigeria, Snoeck Publishers, Ghent, 2007.

List of Museums and Number of Benin Bronzes in their Possession

Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400.
Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe 196.
Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.
London – British Museum 700.
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.
Philadelphia – University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology 100.
Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.
Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde 167.

10) Kwame Opoku “Benin to Berlin Ethnologisches Museum: Are Benin Bronzes made in Berlin?”

11) David Gill, “Yale and Peru: what are the issues?” Looting Matters, lootingmatters
Derek Fincham, “Peru Files Suit Against Yale”, Illicit Cultural Property,
CultureGrrl, Lee Rosenbaum’s Cultural Commentary, “
“Peru Sues Yale over Machu Picchu Artifacts, in U.S. District Court”

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