July 25, 2012

Nigeria demands return of disputed artefacts acquired by Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts

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

Boston’s Musuem of Fine Arts has recently acquired an assortment of artefacts that were looted during the Benin massacre in 1897. Now, Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments is demanding their return.

Huffington Post

Boston’s Museum Of Fine Arts Urged To Return Looted Artifacts To Nigeria
Posted: 07/20/2012 1:56 pm Updated: 07/20/2012 1:56 pm

The National Commission for Museums and Monuments, the governmental body in Nigeria that regulates the nation’s museum systems, is demanding the return of 32 artifacts recently acquired by the Museum of Fine Art in Boston. Consisting of various bronze and ivory sculptures looted during the Benin Massacre of 1897, the Director-General of the commission, Yusuf Abdallah Usman, states that the pieces were illegally taken by the British Expedition as spoils of war.

The MFA in Boston acquired the pieces last month as a gift from New York banker and collector Robert Owen Lehman, who purchased the Benin pieces in the 1950s and 1970s. But the pieces were originally looted by British soldiers in the late 1890s, following the Benin massacre of 1897. In a statement made by Usman, the commission stated: “Without mincing words, these artworks are heirlooms of the great people of the Benin Kingdom and Nigeria generally. They form part of the history of the people. The gap created by this senseless exploitation is causing our people, untold anguish, discomfort and disillusionment.”

According to Huffington Post blogger and Princeton art history professor Chika Okeke-Agulu, the laws governing cultural heritage in the United States are lenient toward museums holding works like those from the Benin Court. Commenting on the ethical imperatives associated with the looted art acquisitions, he has stated that “calls for the resolution of the problem caused by British looters of Benin royal art collection will not go away — especially now that Nigerian/world-citizen voices have learned to harness the popular power of the Internet to demand action.”

All Africa

Nigeria: Blood Antiquities in Respectable Havens
By Kwame Opoku, 19 July 2012

The people of Benin have tried for years to have their precious works of art returned to no avail. Now the artifacts have a new ‘owner’ in America.

“The year 1897 means much to me and my people; it was the year the British invaded our land and forcefully removed thousands of our bronze and ivory works from my great grandfather, Oba Ovonramwen’s Palace.” His Royal Highness Oba Erediauwa, Oba of Benin.

The American media is full of reports that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has recently received a large number of Benin artefacts as donation from a New York banker and collector, Robert Owen Lehman, great-grandson of founder of Lehman Brothers. [1] The gift consists of 34 excellent artworks from West Africa of which 32 are from Benin – 28 bronzes and four ivories. The other two are from Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Benin artefacts had been bought in the 1950s and 1970s. A quick look at the artefacts indicates that they are among the best of Benin artefacts and the press has praised the beauty, elegance, and sophistication of these works. [2]

The sophistication of the artefacts clearly points to their notorious origin: the nefarious invasion of Benin in 1897 by the British in their criminal enterprise, the so-called Punitive Expedition that culminated in the looting of the palace of the Benin king, Oba Ovonramwen, and the killing of innocent children, women and men before Benin City was burnt down by the invading army, as was their tradition whenever and wherever the British army was sent to punish recalcitrant colonial or semi colonial subjects. [3]

The Museum of Fine Arts itself refers to the 1897 invasion and looting as source of many of the artefacts. [4] However, through subtle means attempts are made, often indirectly, to lessen the criminal nature of the source of these magnificent artefacts. The history of the invasion of Benin is not fully stated and is, in many ways, distorted. A press release issued by the museum states:

“The kingdom expanded and flourished from the late 14th through the late 19th century, when it came under British influence upon the conclusion of a treaty with Britain in 1892. Five years later, after Benin forces attacked and killed most members of a British delegation en route to Benin City, the British launched the Punitive Expedition of 1897, sending military forces to the capital and defeating its ruler, Oba Ovonramwen. It is estimated that the British removed more than 4,000 objects from the Benin palace during this military action.” [5]

The statement “after Benin forces attacked and killed most members of a British delegation en route to Benin City, the British launched the Punitive Expedition of 1897”, is surely incomplete, if not misleading. Readers might not appreciate that the so-called British delegation was in fact the British Pre-emptive Force, consisting of 120 African mercenaries, disguised as porters with guns in their luggage, led by British officers that intended to unseat the Oba of Benin by a surprise attack. This force was itself surprised by a Benin attack. [6]

Readers are, of course, not informed that the so-called British delegation went to Benin after the Oba had stated in a response to a request to pay him visit that he would not be able to receive them at the time chosen since he would be involved in traditional rituals during which time no foreigners are allowed to see the Oba. Since when do people visit royalty when they have been told explicitly that the date chosen is unacceptable? The Punitive Expedition of 1897 cannot simply be presented as British response to a Benin attack. The attack was a convenient pretext for British plans that had been made long before that unfortunate visit to depose Oba Ovonramwen who was resisting British hegemonic endeavours to control trade in Benin and surrounding States. [7]

Christraud Geary, senior curator of the African and Oceanic Art Department of the Museum of Fine Arts is credited with declaring that: “We have looked at the legal situation here at the museum and we’ve come to the conclusion that the gift meets all of our standards.” The curator also added that there have been no official claims for the works of art. [8] This attempt to create the impression that there are no legal problems in connection with the acquisition of blood antiquities, which even the museum does not deny, were acquired initially under circumstances of violence and brutal force, would not convince anyone. The phrase “our standards” would need to be clarified whether they refer to standards of the museum or standards prevailing in the USA. In this connection, it is interesting to note that the Boston Museum of Fine Arts has had problems with Italy relating to its acquisition of looted artefacts from Italy and had to return some of them. [9]

What is also remarkable about the reports on the donation of the Benin artefacts to the Boston museum is that there is little mention that the people of Benin, under the leadership of the present Oba, Erediauwa, great-grandson of Oba Ovonramwen from whose palace the Benin artefacts were looted in 1897, have been trying for ages to recover some of the artefacts. However in an article at Boston. com mention was made that: “Over the years, some archaeologists and African government officials have demanded the return of the objects.” [10] Christraud Geary commented that there have been no official claims regarding the artefacts. These artefacts are records of Benin history and culture and are surely more needed in Benin than in Boston. Did anybody think about the needs of the Benin (Edo) people in this connection?

Apparently, the needs of the world have been considered by the senior curator: “What entered my thinking was that here was a wonderful opportunity to move into the public domain objects which hadn’t been seen for decades and which spoke so wonderfully of the great African culture,” he said. “In the MFA, we can share them with people of all nations. We can present their history. It’s a complex history. And that’s our role. To move great cultural objects into the public domain.” [11]

Here again, those museums that are not very keen to consider the needs of specific African peoples who have been robbed of their cultural artefacts ,are solicitous of the needs of the world at large. The curator is anxious for the “world” to see objects that have not been seen for decades. But what about the Benin people who have been violently deprived of their cultural artefacts and records of the history for more than a hundred years? Does anybody think the people of Benin should also be enabled to see their own artefacts? The height of arrogance, paternalism and insensitivity is reached when a curator declares:

“In the MFA, we can share them with people of all nations. We can present their history. It’s a complex history. And that’s our role. To move great cultural objects into the public domain”. [12]

The museum seems prepared to share the Benin artefacts with the peoples of all nations but not with the people of Benin. The museum is keen to present their history: “We can present their history. It’s a complex history” We can all agree that presenting history, especially, the history of other peoples, is a complex matter. But has anyone considered that it might be easier and better to let other peoples tell their own histories by returning to them the records of their history which have been violently looted so that they give us a complete picture? Or are other peoples, by some genetic disability, not in a position to reconstruct their history? Why must Western scholars be the only ones to tell the history of others? If curators at Western museums consider this as their role, they must rethink about their self-assigned role, especially if this directly or indirectly reinforces justifications of the injustices of an imperialist past that enabled certain countries to deprive other peoples of their material, spiritual and cultural resources [13].

Christraud Geary who considers the donation a major contribution is reported to have declared: “It’s such a major, major gift and it’s so important for understanding African creativity and African culture.” But does she not think that these objects are also important for the people of Benin, Nigeria, in order for them to understand their own culture? The needs of the deprived owners appear to be less relevant to Western museum directors and officials who are more occupied with their “universal” museums. But their “universalism” is a Western universalism which does not extend to non-Western peoples. Benin people who want to see these artefacts in Boston will not be granted visa for the United States.

Readers may no doubt recall that fairly recently there was criticism and a call for boycott when Sotheby’s announced they were going to auction Benin artefacts that were in possession of inheritors of one of the participants of the nefarious Punitive Expedition of 1897. The hue and cry against the proposed auction was such that the Galway family and Sotheby’s withdrew the artefacts from the proposed auction. [14]

It is true that a donation to a museum of looted artefacts and an auction of looted artefact are different matters but here the fundamental objections to both situations relate to their common origin: the violent looting of 1897 by the British military force. This stain of initial violence and blood attaches to the wrongful detention of the Benin bronzes. It should be noticed that donations to museums are not always guided by pure altruism as they may appear. There are tax rebates for making such donations. The donor gains in addition an enormous amount of social prestige that can be used to maximize profits in other enterprises.

During the protests against Sotheby’s, led by an NGO, the Nigeria Liberty Forum, the Nigerian Government declared its intention to request the return of all Nigerian artefacts illegally held abroad. A body was to be set up with a mandate to implement this specific objective [15]. One could expect to hear soon official Nigerian reaction on the donation of looted Benin artefacts. Most probably, the whereabouts of the artefacts looted in 1897 are now revealed for the first time to the Nigerian authorities and the people of Benin.

Regarding the statement that there has been no claim to the donated Benin artefacts, we are surprised that this very weak argument is repeated by the museum curator. It is depressing to note that famous museums such as Louvre, British Museum, Metropolitan Museum, Chicago Institute of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, resort to desperate and miserable arguments which first year university students would not dare to present. [16]

There is no rule in Municipal Law or International Law which prevents a holder of a looted or stolen object from returning it to the rightful owner even if he has not asked for it. Normally, most owners will quickly put in a claim once they are aware of the whereabouts of the object and the identity of the holder. But how can one state there has been no claims in this case? The museum itself indicates that the Benin artefacts have not been seen for decades. Indeed, many of the looted artefacts have not been seen by the rightful owners since 1897. How can they put in a claim for the artefacts when they do not know who is holding them? Most probably, the whereabouts of the artefacts looted in 1897 are now revealed for the first time to the Nigerian authorities and the people of Benin.

This unworthy argument that the owners of looted Benin objects have not put in a claim is a remarkable tradition of Western museology. The British Museum has always maintained that there has been no request for the return of the Benin artefacts even though the Oba of Benin sent a petition to the British Parliament, printed in Parliamentary records. [17] Despite this record we still hear from some museum officials, as a variation of this argument, that there have been no formal requests. How much more formal can a request be than a petition to the British Parliament? The Nigerian Government has on several occasions requested the return of looted Nigerian artefacts. As recently as 2008, the Benin Royal Family sent a demand to museums for the return of the artefacts. (Annex ll). The museum directors have till today not even bothered to acknowledge receipt of the petition, hand carried by a member of the Royal Family to the Art. At the opening of the exhibition- Benin – Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria in Vienna, and subsequently in Berlin and Chicago, the request for the return of the artefacts was reiterated. [18]

In 1968 the great Ekpo Eyo, then Director of Museums at the Nigerian Commission on Museums and Monuments, sent a request to various Western governments to return some Benin artefacts for the opening of a new National Museum in Benin City. Not a single government responded. [19]

Several resolutions of the United Nations and UNESCO have urged holders of such artefacts to take the initiative to return these artefacts. The ICOM Code of Ethics for museums requires museums to enter into discussions with owners of foreign cultural artefacts they are holding. In view of all this, can anyone honestly and seriously state that there has been no demand for the return of the looted Benin artefacts?

The patent immorality and illegality of the violent British 1897 invasion of Benin clearly calls for acts of atonement and reconciliation from the persons and the institutions concerned. It is not enough to condemn the illicit traffic in antiquities and at the same time accept artefacts that are obviously tainted with opprobrium, objects that were acquired as a result of shedding the blood of innocent persons and the destruction of their property. It is true that many Western States and their intellectuals have adopted the position that justice and morality have no place in the question of looted artefacts, especially if this concerns African people. If the Benin people had been Europeans, the attitude of Western museum directors and art collectors would have been different. The reaction towards Nazi-looted artefacts is very eloquent in this regard. Indeed some of those holding on to the blood antiquities from Benin would be the first to support recovery of Nazi-looted artefacts. The British Government and Parliament that remain deaf to the cries of the Benin people have recently passed legislation to enable recovery of Nazi looted artefacts. [20]

The movement to secure the recognition of the fundamental iniquity of robbing others of their cultural artefacts, especially where violence has been involved, is gaining ground. Recent restitutions give us some hope that even the West will finally accept that it is wrong to steal the cultural artefacts of other nations. One cannot envisage a peaceful world that accommodates such blatant violations of the human right of others to develop their culture with their own cultural products.

Holders of looted cultural objects are clearly not responsible for the deeds of their predecessors or previous possessors. But are they not also expected to make a contribution to a better world? Or would they rather continue to contribute to historical injustices against African and other peoples? These historical violations of our human right to cultural development, has inter alia, led to the present imbalance in the distribution of classical African artefacts between the West and Africa, to the benefit of the former.

Western museums should finally do something to dispel the views held in the rest of the world that they are looters dens, holding and protecting thousands of ill-gotten cultural artefacts of other peoples. These museums could make a useful contribution to inter-cultural understanding but so long as they labour under this less than favourable reputation, they cannot, at least in the non-Western world, make full use of their potentials.


1. HuffPost, Museum of Fine Arts Boston Receives Monumental Boost To African Art Collection (PHOTOS) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/arts/

2. http://goo.gl/XtA0K

3. K. Opoku, When Will Britain Return Looted Golden Ghanaian Artefacts? A History of British Looting of More Than 100 Objects. http://www.modernghana.com

4.Museum of Fine Arts, Boston ,Robert Owen Lehman Collection PDF. List of the Objects in the Collection.

Press Release: MFA receives gift of African art

“It is estimated that the British removed more than 4,000 objects from the Benin palace during this military action. Numerous pieces were later sold in Great Britain to defray the costs of the campaign, and were acquired by private collectors and museums in Europe and the United States. Many works of art in the Lehman Collection are known to have left Benin in 1897, and the remainder likely left at the same time”. http://www.mfa.org/give/gifts-art/Lehman-Collection

5. http://goo.gl/LP1Mh

6. K. Opoku, “Compromise on the Restitution of Benin Bronzes: Comments on Article by Prof. John Picton on Restitution of Benin Artefacts”. http://www.modernghana.com

7. Ekpo Eyo, “Benin: The sack that was,” http://www.dawodu.net/eyo.htm ,

“The Dialectics of Definitions: “Massacre” and “Sack” in the History of the “Punitive Expedition”, African Arts, 1997, Vol. XXX, No. 3, pp. 34-35. Darshana Soni, “The British and the Benin Bronzes” http://www.arm.arc.co.ukSee also the excellent rap version of the history of the British invasion by Monday Midnite, 1897 (Notorious B I G’s is Dead Wrong REMIX) http://www.youtube.com

8. http://goo.gl/gYo1l

9. K. Opoku, New AAM Standards for the Acquisition of Archaeological Material and Ancient Art: A Minor “American Revolution”?


10. http://goo.gl/uHLJt See Benin1897.com: Art and the Restitution Question

Featuring a colloquium and a Travelling Art Exhibition by Peju Layiwola http://benin1897.com/

11. http://goo.gl/EVqkB

12, Ibid

13. Neil Macgregor, Director, British Museum, has expressed the view that there is a need for a new history and has emphasized the unique qualifications of the British Museum to tell the history or stories of others. See K. Opoku, “When Will Everybody Finally Accept that the British Museum is a British Institution? Comments on a Lecture by Neil MacGregor”. http://www.modernghana.com

14. K. Opoku,”They Are Selling Queen-Mother Idia Mask and We Are All Quiet”. http://www.modernghana.com

15. K. Opoku, “Reflections on the Abortive Queen-Mother Idia Mask Auction: Tactical Withdrawal or Decision of Principle?” http://www.modernghana.com

16. K. Opoku, “Would Western Museums Return Looted Objects if Nigeria and Other African States Were Ruled by Angels? Restitution and Corruption.” http://www.modernghana.com

17. Akenzua, Edun (2000). “The Case of Benin”. Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence, Appendix 21, House of Commons, The United Kingdom Parliament, March 2000. http://goo.gl/NHr91 See also, “The Benin Empire”,


18. K. Opoku,” Opening of the Exhibition Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, “http://www.elginism.com

19. The late Ekpo Eyo wrote: “By the end of the 1960s, the price of Benin works had soared so high that the Federal Government of Nigeria was in no mood to contemplate buying them. When, therefore a National Museum was planned for Benin City in 1968, we were faced with the problem of finding exhibits that would be shown to reflect the position that Benin holds in the world of art history. A few unimportant objects which were kept in the old local authority museum in Benin were transferred to the new museum and a few more objects were brought in from Lagos. Still the museum was “empty”. We tried using casts and photographs to fill gaps but the desired effect was unachievable. We therefore thought of making an appeal to the world for loans or return of some works so that Benin might also be to show its own works at least to its own people. We tabled a draft resolution at the General Assembly of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) which met in France in 1968, appealing for donations of one or two pieces from those museums which have large stocks of Benin works. The resolution was modified to make it read like a general appeal for restitution or return and then adopted.

When we returned to Nigeria, we circulated the adopted resolution to the embassies and high commissions of countries we know to have large Benin holdings but up till now we have received no reaction from any quarters and the Benin Museum stays “empty”.”

Museum, Vol. XXL, no 1, 1979, Return and Restitution of cultural property, pp.18-21, at p.21, Nigeria.

20. The British Parliament has passed a law, Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 that enables owners of Nazi looted artworks now in public British museums and galleries not only to obtain compensation for the loss but to receive the looted object., The Act makes it very clear that it only applies to actions relating to Nazi seizures within a specific period. Article 3 of the Act defines Nazi era thus: “Nazi era” means the period–(a) Beginning with 1 January 1933, and (b) Ending with 31 December 1945. “. Evidently, the British Legislator wanted to ensure that Benin and other peoples, also victims of violent spoliations of their artworks, do not use the Act to bring actions to reclaim their looted objects.

Readers may wish to consult a very useful note on the Holocaust Restitution Bill by Philip Ward. http://goo.gl/9FOyb

The Art Newspaper wrote:

“The government’s major concern about Mr Dismore’s Private Members’ Bill is that amendments may be put to extend its scope. In particular, it will inevitably be seized upon by parliamentarians who are campaigning for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Athens. Similar moves might be made by those calling for the return of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, the Rosetta Stone to Egypt or the Lewis Chessmen to Scotland. The DCMS is therefore expected to press for a clear wording that would preclude deaccessioning being extended beyond the 1933-45 period.”

UK parliament closer to passing bill allowing museums to deaccession Nazi-looted art Legislation expected to be limited to 1933-1945 only




Almost every Western museum has some Benin objects. Here is a short list of where the Benin Bronzes are to be found and their numbers. Various catalogues of exhibitions on Benin art or African art also list the private collections of the Benin Bronzes. The museums refuse to inform the public about the number of Benin artefacts they have and do not display permanently the Benin artefacts in their possession since they do not have enough space. A museum such as Völkerkundemuseum, Vienna has closed since some 10 years the African section where the Benin artefacts closed due to repair works.

Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.

Boston, – Museum of Fine Arts 28.

Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400

Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.

Glasgow _ Kelvingrove and St, Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life 22

Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 196.

Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182.

Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87.

Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98.

London – British Museum 900.

New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163.

Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327.

Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80.

Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde 167.

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1 Comment »

  1. deion marran said,

    09.13.13 at 2:58 am

    I say these Sacred objects should be returned. They are also a record of the History of Benin and they are a fine example of the very advanced African metallurgy traditions. The western institutions now withholding them do not posses the understanding of the deeper symbols in the art, names and writing systems of African civilizations to the degree necessary to tell their story. And of course, as always they are getting massive compensation from the sales and tourism generated by the Benin Bronzes which explains the ‘deaf ear’ treatment and arrogance they are displaying to our indigenous African culture. We don’t hold them responsible for the actions of their colonizing grandfathers, but they are accountable for their current actions . . . .

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