August 1, 2016

Brexit may give new hope for Nigerian artefacts in British Museum

Posted at 1:07 pm in British Museum, Similar cases

Could Britain leaving the EU lead to the return of disputed Nigerian treasures

Taking a cue from the Parthenon Sculptures (Return to Greece) Bill, and the legal claim inadmissibility, questions are being asked about whether Brexit could be a route to the repatriation of other disputed artefacts in the British Museum. Nigeria has various claims relating to the seizure of artefacts from the ancient kingdom of Benin during punitive raids by the British in 1897.

Benin Bronzes in the British Museum

Benin Bronzes in the British Museum

The Guardian (Nigeria)

Brexit: How hope may rise for Nigeria’s looted artefacts
By Tajudeen Sowole
31 July 2016

If the two centuries of ownership crisis between United Kingdom and Greece, over controversial Parthenon Marbles, is resolved as a result of Brexit, hopes may appear on the horizon for return of artefacts of Nigerian origin incarcerated in the British Museum, London. Currently, what has been described as “a cross party group” of British MPs has reopened bid to return the Parthenon marbles to Greece as part of effort to keep healthy relationship with Athens after Brexit.

Also known as the Elgin Marbles, the objects, which include parts of sculptures and frieze from 2,500 years old of remnant ancient master pieces became subject of ownership tussle after the British government acquired them 200 years ago. The sculptures were originally removed from Parthenon, an ancient edifice in Athens by the seventh Earl of Elgin, Thomas Bruce, who was suspected to have ‘stolen’ the pieces from Greece during Ottoman Empire rule. But the then British Parliament disagreed that the marble pieces were illegitimately acquired.

And that the British Government, in 1816, used an Act of Parliament to officially take ownership of the controversial sculptures, perhaps, made it irreversible nearly 200 years after, despite Greece’s consistent request for the return of the sculptures.

In the last few years, ironically, there have been louder voices, among Britons, for the return and reunification of the marbles with their other parts in Athens. However, the legality of acquisition and return remained an issue, which the promoters of reunification seemed not to provide an answer.
But after Brexit, those who favoured return are back with argument that Britain needs as many as good relationship with individual EU countries as possible. So, the Parthenon marbles come as trading chips in exchange for Greces’s healthy relationship with the U.K.

Watchers of the unfolding battle for morality and ego have argued that should British MPs okay the return of the controversial Parthenon marbles, the revered British Museum could just be on its way to losing centuries of pride and value as a ‘universal’ house of culture; more countries are going to be emboldened to mount pressures on the U.K for return of their artefacts that have been on display inside the British Museum for centuries or decades. Among the leading spaces in the world, housing the most diverse artefacts across cultures – ancient and modern – is the British Museum. On the list of iconic pieces in the British Museum are Idia mask, in pendant and bronze head, from ancient Benin Kingdom origin.

A parliament member, Mark Williams joined by 11 other MPs had on July 11, 2016 presented a bill on the return of Parthenon Marbles. “This Bill proposes that the Parliament should annul what it did 200 years ago…,” Williams stated. He argued that “It’s time we engaged in a gracious act,” to right two centuries of wrong.In fact, the agitation already has a volunteer group. Andrew George, chair of the British Association for the Reunification of the Parthenon Sculptures, added his voice.

“If we are about to negotiate a decent trade deal with our European friends, the last thing we want to do is to show the kind of raspberries and two-fingers that [Nigel] Farage was displaying in the European Parliament the other day,” George told a British newspaper, Independent. “And there could be no better demonstration of that generosity and graciousness than to do what would be the right thing by the Greeks.”

In 1897, unknown numbers of sculptures and other art pieces of Benin origin – now Edo State in Nigerian nation state – were looted by British security forces during the infamous Benin Expedition in the West African town, which got Oba Ovonramwen (1888-1897) of Benin sacked. Much of the looted sculptures, according to records, were sold at auctions in London, and went into private hands, as well as, German and Austrian buyers. However, among the most popular of the artefacts are the Idia head bronze and mask pendant, depicting Benin Queen Mother (Iyoba), and currently on display in the British Museum. Another mask pendant – slightly damaged – is also at Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, U.S.
Ahead of FESTAC in 1977, Nigeria made unsuccessful bid to get the Idia head from British Museum. If MP Williams and his co-agitators succeed in getting the U.K to return the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, could Nigeria take the opportunity and get Idia head and pendant back to the country, over 115 years after they were looted? A United Nations Educational, Scientitic and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) consultant on intellectual property, Prof Folarin Shyllon, during a chat few days ago, doubted Nigeria’s preparadness to take such an advantage should the U.K return the Parthenon Marbles. Shyllon, a former Vice Chairman of one of the sub-committees of UNESCO noted that apart from the request made by Nigeria towards the FESTAC 1977 event, the country has not initiated any other attempt.

“The problem is that our ministry of culture has not been doing enough as there was no government-to-government moves with the U.K concerning the return of the artefacts, after the failed-attempt in 1977.” Shyllon stressed that apart from the British Museum, there are other holders across Europe and in the U.S, that have works of Nigerian origin of which the country never made formal request. His advice: “The Ministry of Information and Culture should immediately commence a process for formal request of these artefacts,” he stated.

Whatever the texture of Nigeria’s request will be, a legal option is unlikely to achieve any result. For example, a non-Governmental group Athenians Association, which took the case over Parthenon Marbles to European Court of Human Rights returned empty handed. The EU courts ruled that the group’s case was inadmissable given the fact that the European convention on human right lacks retrospection power; it came into existence in 1953 after the marbles were already removed by the Elgin.

In 2013, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) hosted meeting with the authorities of the foreign museum in Benin. The aim was to start a non-confrontational process of persuasive means of repatriation. In attendance were Dr. Michael Barrett and Dr. Lotten Gustafsson-Reinius representatives of the National Museum of Ethnography of the Museums of World Culture Stockholm, Sweden Dipl. Ethn; Silvia Dolz of Museum für Völkerkunde Dresden, Staatliche Ethnographische Sammlungen Sachsen of the Staatliche Kunstsammlungen Dresden, Germany; Dr. Peter Junge represented Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Germany; Dr. Barbara Plankensteiner represented Museum für Völkerkunde, Vienna, Austria; and Dr. Annette Schmidt of the National Museum of Ethnology of the Netherlands.
Led by the Directir-General, NCMM, Mallam Abdallah Yusuf Usman, the delegates also invluded Rosemary Bodam, Peter Odeh, representative of Ngeria Babatunde Adebiyi and Shyllon; and representatives of the Benin monarch, Prince Edun Egharese Akenzua (Enogie of Obazuwa) and Chief Stanley Obamwonyi (Esere of Benin).

Among other artefacts of Nigerian origin illegitimately acquired across the world include Nok Terracotta in Louvre, Paris, France, and several other Benin bronzes and ivories said to have been looted during the 1897 invasion of the old Benin Kingdom by the British soldiers, but currently housed in Vienna, Austria, U.S and German museums.

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  1. ChrysoPratsides said,

    08.01.16 at 1:38 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Brexit may give new restitution hope to Nigerian for Benin artefacts in British Museum

  2. Rom_Schwarz said,

    08.01.16 at 7:11 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Brexit may give new restitution hope to Nigerian for Benin artefacts in British Museum

  3. jagzarandona said,

    08.01.16 at 10:58 pm

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Brexit may give new restitution hope to Nigerian for Benin artefacts in British Museum

  4. aerdnaert said,

    08.02.16 at 9:35 am

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Brexit may give new restitution hope to Nigerian for Benin artefacts in British Museum

  5. Ileana27Ileana said,

    08.02.16 at 11:14 am

    RT @elginism: Blog post: Brexit may give new restitution hope to Nigerian for Benin artefacts in British Museum

  6. TheDivinePrince said,

    08.04.16 at 5:45 am

    Brexit may give new hope for Nigerian artefacts in British Museum –

  7. Dr.Kwame Opoku said,

    08.17.16 at 7:33 am


    For many of us, any occasion is welcome for discussing the restitution of the Benin artefacts and the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles, and Brexit is no exception. But we must state clearly that neither the Greek sculptures nor the Benin treasures are intrinsically linked to the political wisdom or folly that may be currently prevailing in the British Isles.

    Whilst the raising of the question of the Nigerian artefacts often recalls the existence of the dispute relating to the Greek treasures, the two issues must in no way be amalgamated. The nature of the objects, the history of their acquisition, the relevant legal and political ramifications and the possible difficulties of their restitution, are obviously not the same.
    We must put on record our unflinching support for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles and for the restitution of the Benin Bronzes. Whilst we would like to state our boundless admiration for the Greek government and officials for their persistent, historic, recorded and enduring efforts to recover their cultural treasures, we would be very hesitant to state the same about Nigerian efforts in this context. Our love and commitment to Nigerian culture and efforts to recover looted/stolen Nigerian cultural artefacts have been amply stated in various places. But have Nigerian officials expended as much effort as the Greeks have done to recover the national treasures?
    Prof. Wilhelm Östberg, former Director of the Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, has suggested that Nigerian officials may have other interests in lending national treasures without seeking reciprocity and that may also explain why the same officials are not keen to submit formal requests for restitution. No one has contested that assertion.
    Our own conclusion, after years of reflecting on the issue of restitution of Nigerian artefacts, is that if the Nigerian officials had put in sufficient efforts we would by now have recovered a large number of the thousands of Nigerian artefacts that are illegally and illegitimately detained in several Western museums.
    To start with, the Nigerian officials could establish and publish a simple list of the artefacts they would want back. To date no official Nigerian list has been produced. The Cairo Conference on restitution in 2010, under the leadership of Zahi Hawass, asked for such a list. We have heard from some officials that they do not know where looted Nigerian artefacts are. However, many books and exhibition catalogues provide some of the required information. Moreover, a short visit to any major Western museum in London, Berlin, Paris, Vienna and elsewhere would yield useful relevant information.
    Has Nigeria ever reported any lost/stolen artefact to Interpol and other international bodies that might be able to assist in the recovery of such items? Has the loss of Olokun ever been reported to a competent body? Some officials even deny that Nigeria has lost any such treasures.
    One task Nigerian officials could usefully perform would be to provide to their own public precise information on the efforts that have so far been made to recover artefacts abroad. They would thereby enable the public to learn more about Nigerian artefacts and the history of their journey abroad and efforts for their recovery. But it appears that some Nigerian authorities are not interested in Nigerian history and have even prohibited the teaching of history in schools.
    Nigerian officials talk about quiet diplomacy and refuse to reveal any details about their efforts at restitution so far. Are public servants who are not dealing with defence matters allowed to pursue such a policy which makes it almost impossible to know what they are doing or not doing? How can Nigerians practice quiet diplomacy when their Western counterparts are open about their activities? How can they whisper in dining rooms and reception halls whilst their Western colleagues are shouting loudly on roof tops that they would not return any Nigerian artefacts? What kind of game is this where each side seems to have a different set of rules?
    It is obvious to many that Nigerian officials would have to abandon the policy of quiet diplomacy that has so far not resulted in any restitution since Independence in 1960. This failed policy must not be pursued further. The many thousands of looted/stolen Nigerian artefacts abroad will not return home through quiet diplomacy. The examples of Italy, Egypt and Turkey demonstrate that only a vigorous and open campaign can yield tangible results. Queen-Mother Idia, Oba Esigie, Oba Akenzua and others will not return from imperialist detention and exile until the strident voice of Nigeria is loud enough to be heard even in the mighty citadels of looted artefacts. Whispering at cocktail parties will not liberate the detained nobles.

    Kwame Opoku. 17 August, 2016.

  8. Teslim said,

    03.22.17 at 5:31 pm

    Everything should be returned including those taken away during benin expedition of 1897.

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