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Nigerian & US museums in conflict over looted artefacts

During the British led Benin massacre of 1897, thousands of artefacts were looted by the soldiers carrying out the raids. The most well know of these are the Benin Bronzes [1] in the British Museum, but there are many others too.

All Africa [2]

Nigerian, American Museums Lock Horns Over ‘Stolen’ Artefacts
By Chika Okeke, 15 July 2012

Thousands of Benin artefacts were illegally looted by the colonial masters and European troops during their invasion of the Benin Kingdom. CHIKA OKEKE writes that about 32 priceless objects currently in Museum of Fine Art Boston U.S.A. risk repatriation on account of their failure to meet all legal standards.

The kingdom of Benin artefacts illegally kept in various museums across Britain and the United States of America have been a source of tourist attraction to both visitors and the Citizens. The artefacts are elaborate and hardly can strangers reproduce the original ones that are popular in Benin Kingdom.

The artefacts range from commemorative head of queen mother Idia, pendant mask among others. The looted artefacts were carted away during the historic invasion of Benin Kingdom by the British Government in 1897.

Since the invasion of Benin kingdom till date, those looted artefacts are still in the care of British Museums and other public institutions across the globe that are seriously making good fortune from such works of art while the original owners are denied any form of benefit.

About 28 bronze and six ivories illegally looted during the Benin invasion were recently donated to the Museum of Fine Art Boston, U.S.A. by one of the heirs of the beneficiary, Mr. Robert Owen Lehman, a situation which has continued to generate intense debate.

NCMM reacts to the controversial donation

The Director- General, National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Mallam Yusuf Usman Abdallah described the controversial donation as scandalous, insisting that the Museum of Fine Art Boston, U.S.A must sheath their sword and surrender the priceless objects to Nigeria whom are the original owners.

He said: “We have read with trepidation the donation of thirty-two works of Benin Art precisely , 28 Bronze and six Ivories looted during the Benin Massacre of 1897 by one of the heirs of the beneficiary of the expedition, Mr. Robert Owen Lehman, to the Museum of Fine Art Boston, U.S.A.

“The collections which form part of the exploits of the British Expedition were taken out illegally on the pretext of spoils of war. Without mincing words, these artworks are heirloom 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.

“It is very saddening that the Museum of Fine Arts Boston, U.S.A. who now claim to be the new beneficiary of these works said that the donation met all legal standards. One wonders what they mean by this. Are they working outside of the UNESCO Conventions and other standard setting instruments?

“We are vehemently opposed to this stance by the management of the Museum of Fine Art. Objects taken illegally should be returned to their rightful owners and in this case the people of Nigeria. No one can give objective and true history of their patrimony, however much they try than the true owners”.

According to him, “If these art works adjudged to be great, are so wonderful to move into the public domain of the United States, would it not be more appropriate if they are first returned to their home where they will be meaningful and happy to thrive, helping to define reality for the people, explaining the past and shaping the future.

While calling on the management of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston to urgently return the exiled artefacts to the rightful owners, he said: “For the avoidance of doubt, we hereby place it on record that we demand, as we have always done, the return of these looted works and all stolen, removed or looted artifacts from Nigeria under whatever guise.

Highlighting the Benin massacre

Explaining the details that led to the looted artefact, the DG said, “On January 12, 1897, Rear-Admiral Harry Rawson, commanding the squadron at the Cape of Good Hope was appointed by the British Admiralty to lead an expedition to capture the Benin king and destroy Benin City.

The operation was named Benin Punitive Expedition but on February 9, 1897, the invasion of Benin kingdom began. The field commanders were instructed by their commander-in-chief to burn down all Benin kingdom’s towns and villages and hang the king of Benin wherever and whenever he was captured.

The invasion force comprised of about 1,200 British Marines, sailors and Niger Coast Protectorate Forces which were sub divided into three groups namely; the ‘Sapoba’, ‘Gwato’ and ‘Main’ Columns. The ‘Sapoba’ column and the ‘Main column’ reached Benin City after 10 days of bitter fighting but the ‘Gwato’ column was routed at Gwato.

“Immediately after the British invaders secured the city, looting began. The exercise was carried out by all members of the expedition. The monuments and palaces of many high-ranking chiefs were looted as well as homes and religious buildings. The blaze suddenly became out of control and engulfed part of the city on the third day.

As a result, most of the plunder was retained by the expedition while about 2,500 religious artifacts, Benin visual history, mnemonics and artworks were sent to England.

“The British Admiralty immediately confiscated and auctioned off the war booty to offset the costs of the Expedition. The expected revenue from the expedition was discussed already before Phillips set out on his ill-fated journey to the city of Benin in 1896.

He stressed, ‘In late 1897, the auctioning took place in Paris, France where most of the Bronze where bought by Germans but a good number of them is currently in the British Museum London. The movement of Benin art to Museums around the world showed the beginning of long and slow European reassessment of the value of West African art.

The Benin art was copied and the style integrated into the art of many European artists and thus had a strong influence on the early formation of modernisation in Europe.

“The King of Benin was eventually captured by the British consul-general Moor, deposed and sent to live out his days in Calabar.

He died in 1914, while Moor committed suicide in Barnes, Middlesex in 1909”.