In 1897, British troops launched a violent retaliatory raid against the kingdom of Benin, in present-day southern Nigeria, looting and torching the royal palace and sending the oba, or king, into exile. The British confiscated all of the royal treasures of their colonial subjects, giving some to the officers but taking most to an auction in London to help pay for the shipment.
These rare ‘Benin bronzes’ over the past century have been scattered in hundreds of institutions around the world, including the Denver Art Museum, where a 16th or 17th century bronze plaque is one of 11 objects from the museum’s collection from the ancient kingdom. from Benin.
Today, amid a global toll of colonial history and a racial justice movement, pressure is mounting for art collections such as the one in Denver to return the relics to their rightful owners. European institutions led the charge, pledging to return Benin’s bronzes to help Africa rebuild art collections lost after centuries of looting, but American collections were slower to embark.
“It’s not just about taking the artwork that was an act of war,” said Dan Hicks, a British curator and professor whose book, “The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution “, argues in favor of the repatriation of artefacts. in Nigeria. “The continued display of these objects in these museums represents for many an enduring act of violence.”
The Denver Art Museum has not exhibited any of its Beninese pieces for years, museum officials said in a statement, and last year began working with experts “so that we can better understand their provenance. complete “.
“For the moment, none of these objects are visible and the museum has not been contacted by Nigeria for requests for information or for requests to return the objects,” the statement said.
The Benin bronzes debate comes as the Denver Art Museum grapples with the history of its own collection. Earlier this month, the museum voluntarily gave up four Cambodian antiques after federal authorities decided to seize the objects. The US Department of Justice has alleged that the relics – sold to the museum by Douglas Latchford, who was indicted in 2019 for trafficking in looted antiques – were looted in the Southeast Asian nation.
How Denver got its bronze in Benin
Benin bronzes are a bit of an overkill – they are neither uniformly bronze nor from the country of Benin (the ancient kingdom of Benin is in southern Nigeria). Artifacts include everything from carved elephant tusks to ivory statues and wooden heads, in addition to iconic bronze plaques such as the one from the Denver Art Museum.
“The royal palace of the oba or king of Benin was adorned with hundreds of ornate plaques, like this one, telling the story of court life,” reads the plaque’s description on the website. from the Denver Art Museum. “Cast in the lost wax technique by a highly skilled craftsman, this plaque has the figure of a court nobleman or perhaps a chief showing the details of his insignia, including his helmet, a necklace of elaborate coral, an embroidered skirt, a belt and anklets.
The museum acquired the plaque in 1955 from the Carlebach Gallery in New York. The coin was “taken” in 1897 by Sir Ralph Moor – who led the British protectorate of the African region and the Benin City raid – from the Kingdom of Benin and sent to the collection of the British Foreign Service office, according to the section. “Known provenance” of the article’s web page, which traces its history and acquisition.
The plaque is number 60 of 300 taken by Moor and initially exhibited in the British Museum, according to Hicks, the British curator. About 100 of them were variously sold or given away.
The bronze plaque is the only one of 11 objects in the Denver Art Museum that “we can confirm that it was removed from the Kingdom by the British Foreign Service in 1897,” museum officials said.
In addition to taking a closer look at its Benin collection last year, museum staff are also participating in a project called Digital Benin, a German-led initiative that “will bring together photographs, oral histories and rich material from documentation from collections around the world to provide a much-requested insight into royal works of art looted in the 19th century, ”says the project’s website. Its launch is scheduled for 2022.
The Benin bronzes are in collections in England and Germany, New York and California. And they can reach significant prices: One Bénin Bronze – a head of oba – sold in 2007 for 4.74 million dollars.
The Sarr-Savoie report
The discussion of looted art during colonial times got a boost in 2017 when Emmanuel Macron, the French president, told a group of students in Burkina Faso that the return of African artefacts kept in his home country origin would become a “top priority”.
“I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France,” Macron said. “African heritage cannot be limited to private collections and European museums.”
Macron commissioned a report and the authors recommended in 2018 that items removed and sent to mainland France without the consent of their countries of origin be definitively returned – if the country of origin requests it.
The figures behind the looting of colonial art are startling: around 90 to 95% of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside the continent by major museums, experts said in the French report.
Known as the Sarr-Savoy Report, it triggered a domino effect across Europe and ultimately the United States.
Germany announced in April that it would start returning around 1,100 Beninese bronzes from its museums in Nigeria. A Dutch committee last year recommended the unconditional return of the objects to the former colonies of the Netherlands.
Last month, the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, removed 10 Benin bronze pieces from the exhibit and pledged to repatriate them to Nigeria.
“We recognize the trauma, violence and loss that such exhibits of stolen artistic and cultural heritage can inflict on the victims of these crimes, their descendants and communities at large,” the museum said on its website.
Repatriation of items should be done on a “case-by-case basis,” Hicks said. “We’re not talking about emptying museums and sending everything back. It’s about being open to giving back when asked.
But works of art such as the Benin Bronze hosted in Denver are “the anthropology of this era,” he said. “They are used to tell a story of cultural supremacy that has no place in what we think of art museums today.”
In an essay titled ‘Give us back what our ancestors did’, Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor writes about the despondency he felt upon seeing these masterful works – iconic exhibits of his culture – hung in British museums stilted.
“Generations of Africans have already lost untold history and cultural benchmarks due to the lack of some of the best works of art created on the continent,” Ehikhamenor wrote. “We shouldn’t have to ask, over and over again, to get back what is ours. “
Nigeria plans to open a museum in Benin City in 2023 with at least 300 Bronzes from Benin, populated mostly with pieces from major European collections.
“I want people to be able to understand their past and see who we were,” Godwin Obaseki, governor of Edo State, where Benin City is located, told The New York Times.
America takes its time
While the European institutions have taken the initiative in repatriating the artifacts, the American collections have “been quite slow to react to this,” said Rashida Bumbray, director of culture and art for the Open Society Foundations, a global grant network, which last year pledged $ 15 million. towards the return of cultural objects to Africa.
The Smithsonian’s announcement “is a game-changer,” Bumbray said, but “the United States is lagging behind.”
Many museums have been slow to respond to demands for greater transparency in their acquisition practices and stricter ethical practices, said Elizabeth Campbell, a professor at the University of Denver who heads the Center for Art Collection Ethics from school.
“Provenance research is very expensive, time consuming, time consuming and has not been prioritized,” Campbell said. “Many museums invest in acquisition and not in research. We hope that will change as they get better scrutiny. “
The challenge of provenance research, according to a list of frequently asked questions at the Denver Art Museum, “is capacity and time, because we have over 70,000 works in our collection.” A multidepartmental provenance committee meets every two weeks to discuss provenance projects, the museum said.
The Denver Art Museum has had to deal with other efforts to repatriate pieces from its collection.
The museum has given up the four Cambodian antiques linked to Latchford and is examining two other pieces from Thailand linked to the now deceased art dealer. In September, the museum also repatriated a Nepalese statue, and in 2016 returned a statue to Cambodia that had been looted during its tumultuous civil war in the 1970s.
There is now a precedent for institutions to return Benin bronzes, Hicks said, naming Germany as a world leader.
“The question now,” he said, “will this also be conducted from Denver? “