A Quick Interim Report on the Upcoming Sale of Benin Artefacts at Sotheby's

It is extremely difficult to obtain an object without at least resorting so some kind of violence: I believe half your museum is stolen.[1]

I admit to a certain unease about discussions about the restitution of artworks.

International conventions provide a framework against which to judge contemporary transactions and I tend to consider the arguments for the return of artefacts ‘acquired’ within contexts of war and colonial occupation overwhelming.

At the same time, some of the arguments for restitution leave a bitter taste behind.

The reasons for this may seem abstract to those of you deeply engaged in the case for or against restitution of any particular item – and, yes, I have been recently repeatedly told off by a temporary flatmate of being an undecided relativist. All that said, it appears to me that the case of ivory masques from Benin from Galway estate again raises wider questions about what constitutes legitimate forms and contexts of acquisition – who defines at any particular time what is legitimate? by which standards do we judge past acts of collecting, contemporary or those of our own time? -, whether and under which circumstances an artefact can become of a particular place or people even if it was acquired under circumstances we today consider illegitimate, and – considering that artefacts’ biographies may involve several owners and locations from which they were removed under widely different circumstances – the means by which one identifies an original and/or legitimate owner. Who do we consider the owners of cultural artefacts anyway? The individuals who originally produced, commissioned or in any other form we consider legitimate acquired the artefact and their descendants? The wider social and cultural groups to which they belonged? The states that currently govern the geographical area in which they lived? How far back into history do we want to ask these questions and which kind of documentary evidence do we accept to proof the (il)legitimate acquisition of an artefact? … Unlike self-aware creatures including humans, artefacts do not generally have interests of their own (although I suspect that this case may be made within some religious frameworks). Instead, humans do use them for their own interests, some of which we may consider more legitimate or worthy than others. So, to which extent should we consider in debates about restitution the intentions and motivations of all parties involved? And, who is ‘we’ anyway?

And, on a completely different note, how do these debates relate to contemporary droit de suite legislations that grant artists certain rights when their works are resold? In other words, even if we consider the current ownership of controversial objects legitimate and dismissed calls for restitutions, what are these owners’ obligations towards the communities from which these objects originate when the objects are resold?[2]

I do still battle with these questions and as yet have not found the time to read further into these issues. And, maybe James Cuno’s book is worth reading for the sake of understanding the wider debates. However, by means of recommendation, Elginism is a useful blog chronicling arguments regarding the restitution of contested artefacts from across the world (and largely taking a pro-restitution stand while Cuno rejects such claims as ‘dubious and dangerous politicization of antiquities’). With particular regard to African contexts, earlier this year Critical Interventions announced a special issue under the title Who Owns African Cultural Patrimony.

As for the upcoming sale at Sotheby’s, I’m still looking for more information.

What is available so far suggests that it is being sold by the descendants of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Gallwey (Galway since he changed his name in 1913), a former deputy commissioner and vice-counsel with the Oil Rivers, later Niger Coast Protectorate. According to the description of a photograph of the Oba of Benin Ovonramwen (d. 1914) in the catalogues of Cambridge Library, Gallwey ‘managed to persuade Ovonramwen to sign a treaty placing Benin under British protection and promising to suppress the slave trade.’ While the rest of the entry reflects a biased, British colonial narrative, this suggests Gallwey’s close involvement in the events that eventually led to the punitive expedition in 1897 that resulted, among others, in the removal of the artefacts in question from the palace of the Oba. (A more comprehensive biography of the man can be found here and, if you ask me, he doesn’t come across as a particularly likeable person.) It appears that the masque has been in the possession of the family since Gallwey ‘acquired’ it in the late 19th century (although, questions have been raised and challenged about the piece’s history and relation to other pieces currently in museum collections). In February 2011 the family will auction the 16th century ivory pendant mask for an estimated £3.5m to £4.5m ($5.4m to $ 6.9m) alongside other artefacts from Benin, according to the Financial Times.

Since I first read about the upcoming sale at Sotheby’s a few days ago, Sahara Reporters and Naijablog have brought the issue to the attention of Nigerian communities at home and abroad. As a result, the news of the sale have spread. The UK based Nigeria Liberty Forum has taken up the case. They have sent a letter of protest to Sotheby’s (quoted here after Sahara Reporters, I added a link to the convener's blog), an online petition and a Facebook group have been set up:

Nigeria Liberty Forum
3 Birkbeck Street London E2 6JY
● Tel: + 44 203 015 0739
● Mobile: + 44 798 421 2553
23rd December 2010-12

Ms Helen Collier
Sotheby's London
34-35 New Bond Street
London W1A 2AA

Dear Ms Collier

Re Auction of 16TH Century Benin Ivory and Other Benin Artefacts.

The Nigeria Liberty Forum is a UK based Nigerian pro democracy group of sympathisers and volunteers who share a passion for grassroots political engagement and participation. We amongst many other activities Seek solutions to challenges with other UK based African groups and institutions; Protecting the rights of Nigerians in the UK and the Diaspora; Encouraging Nigerians in Diaspora to engage and participate in the Nigerian political process and Partnership work with individuals and groups in the fields of Education, Charitable causes and Community Development.

We have successfully run many campaigns to further our cause. You may wish to visit our website for further details.

It has come to our attention that 6 pieces of Benin artefacts are to be sold at your auction rooms on the 17th of February 2011 and accordingly we would like to register our protest that precious pieces of our Nigerian heritage are to be sold to the highest bidders.

We are aware (and so should you) that these artefacts were forcefully taken from Nigeria in 1897 when the British invaded the Benin empire and request very firmly that your organisation should not assist and or collude in the appropriation of such.

It is a shame that in this time and age individuals continue to plunder and abuse the culture and heritage of a defenceless people just because they can. There is simply no legal or moral basis for the Galway family to lay claim to the Benin masks and to go on to profit from their sale is reprehensible and unconscionable.

To this end we request that you withdraw the items from sale forthwith as the true ownership is far from settled. We would also like to request that you go a step further and advise your clients to return these items back to the Nigerian people where they rightfully belong. It is akin to the selling of the Egyptian mummies, and should not be allowed.

We are in the process of mounting legal, diplomatic and or political challenges to the sale of these cultural artefacts and we are sure your organisation does not want to be embroiled in the resulting fallout this will surely create. The rape of Africa and plundering thereof has gone on for far too long and still continues, aided by institutions as yours.

We have also created a petition to stop this sale from going on at the URL below and if necessary mount a physical protest, which as a going concern may be damaging to your reputation from the incessant news coverage that this will bring.


We do not doubt your integrity and we know Sotheby will do the right thing and withdraw the said items from sale.

These artefacts were acquired illegally, by theft, and they are now being put up for sale illegally. The artwork is an important cultural heritage of Benin people, in Nigeria, and it is part of their history, and should be returned forthwith.

It should also be noted that the said masks have been subject of historical study by the Open University, which has produced a clip about the theft of these artefacts. Refer to United Kingdom Open University link below.

Yours sincerely

Kayode Ogundamisi – Convener


I am amazed by the attention the upcoming sale has generated and the ability of the object to catalyse and mobilise enduring sentiments of historical and contemporary injustices.

However, there has been an active campaign for the restitution of objects removed from Benin in the aftermath of the punitive expedition in 1897 already before the news of the February 2011 sale broke (some of which has been documented by the Elginism blog I mentioned above). Recently, the case has been highlighted by Nigerian writers on the occasion of the inauguration of the new Acropolis Museum in Greece in Summer 2009 (see Tajudeen Sowole’s article in an earlier post on this blog or here, or see S. Okwunodu Ogbechie’s blog entry here) as well as the Peju Layiwola’s travelling exhibition (see here for a review of the exhibition) and publication (see here for a review of the book).

I am curious if and how Sotheby’s will respond to the current campaign (What are the current whereabouts of the Quing bronzes after this Chinese bidder refused to pay Christies citing the controversial status of these artefacts?) and whether the current publicity will further the broader campaign. Returning to the art historian’s chip on my shoulder, I also wonder whether these debates contribute to or distract from broader critiques of global inequalities.

On a final note, does anybody have further information about the detail sof the agreement between the Nigerian government and the Musee du Quai Branly regarding the controversial Sokoto and Nok terracotta sculptures?

[1] From a letter by the German traveler Richard Kandt to Felix Luschan at the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, which, incidentally, owns the second largest public collection of artefacts from Benin, written in the very year of the punitive expedition that preceded their removal from the Oba’s palace. The quote was unearthed by Chika Okeke

[2] This issue is also implicitly raised here.


  1. "by which standards do we judge past acts of collecting". These weren't past acts of collecting were they? they were "looted". i could half understand those who may argue that they were "spoils" of war, but those who refere to these artefacts as collecting, i cannot.
    Also, you do ask how far do we go? The people of Benin are not an ancient people like the Incas..are they?

  2. Nii,

    actually, I used the term acquisition. I employ the term ‘collecting’ in the next sentence to raise broader issues. Collecting as an act of accumulating and assembling objects. The term itself does not refer any particular kind of acquisition, for want of a better term.

    I do not consider the removal of artefacts from the Oba’s palace in 1897 a legitimate act of collecting. I never said this. This is what you read into it. But, sorry, I have never been the activist type. I like to ask questions. And, I am physically unable to read, think and write about this current case without thinking about the general questions it raises. Hence, the use of the terms ‘collecting’ and ‘acquisition.’

    And, if we question the legitimacy of ‘acquisition’ (for want of a better general term) of the Benin artefacts, we need to ask wider questions about other contexts of ‘collecting’ as well. And, yes, collecting has and continues to happen in a variety of ways, some of which we consider more legitimate than others (ranging from theft to mutually beneficially acts of patronage) – and all of them involve more or less unequal power relations. Hence, we should continue the debate by considering whether, for instance, the acquisition by an art dealer fully aware of the higher value of a piece on international art markets was illegitimate if he did not make his local counterparts sufficiently aware of this.
    I also never called the people of Benin ancient. This is what you read into it. (Nor would that have constituted a negative judgement, after all, the ancient in ‘ancient Greece’ carries positive connotations). But that doesn’t answer the question as to how far back in time we want to consider claims of restitution. It doesn’t answer the question of over how many acts of re-acquisition we want to trace claims of restitution.

    For what it’s worth, I do not think that 1897 constituted a legitimate act of collecting. You may want to call it looting, (for silly reasons of personal taste) I find theft a more useful term.

    But this should not infringe my right to wonder and ask further questions about wider implications here. This shouldn’t affect my ability to feel uneasy about the language some commentators on the case use nor anybody else’s right to disagree with the current campaign (and I have read the occasional comment to this end). And, yes, as I said, I do not make for an activist type – and I think this job is currently perfectly well done by many other people out there (I particularly look forward to Ogbechie’s campaign). And, I will not lie about the fact that some of the implications of universally pursuing these principles across time and place make me feel uneasy. For what it’s worth, I’m less concerned with the possibilities that European museums may use many of their ‘master pieces,’ more with questions of establishing legitimate owners. Maybe Ogbechi is right and this problem is largely the result of scholarship into African arts that identifies owners primarily in terms of larger social and cultural, in fact, embarrassingly still most often, ‘ethnic’ groups. Identifying such a group always involves processes of inclusion and exclusion, processes that lend themselves to abuse by opportunistic politicians, the more, the more valuable the objects concerned may be considered (just consider the language used in some of the comments on the articles in the Sahara reporter and other forums). … I don’t know, I’m not sure I express myself appropriately here and I do not have answers. That’s why I ask questions.

    Nii, I am sorry if that offends you but …

  3. As regards to my final question, this is the ICOM press release regarding the Nok and Sokoto Sculptures ‘acquired’ by the Musée du Quai Branly (via AllAfrica.Com - http://allafrica.com.ezproxy.soas.ac.uk/stories/200203060797.html, accessed 27 December 2010)

    International Council of Museums (Paris)

    Nigeria: Ownership of Nok And Sokoto Objects Recognised

    5 March 2002

    press release

    Paris — ICOM welcomes the French government's decision to recognise Nigeria's ownership of three Nok and Sokoto artefacts.
    The objects in question were acquired by France in 1999 for the planned Musée du Quai Branly and belong to the categories of archaeological objects identified on the ICOM Red List as being amongst the types of cultural goods most affected by thefts and looting. They are protected by national legislation and banned from export: on no account must they be purchased or offered for sale.

    ICOM also applauds Nigeria's generous decision to deposit the artefacts concerned with the Musée du Quai Branly, to be exhibited with the museum's permanent collection, for the exceptionally long period of 25 years (renewable), in exchange for France's recognition of its ownership. ICOM recommends that visitors should be clearly informed of the precise status of these objects and the way in which they were discovered.
    ICOM would like to take this opportunity to issue a reminder that the looting of archaeological items in Africa causes irreparable damage, destroying vital evidence of the history of the continent and of mankind as a whole. Museums must therefore take a lead in combating the illicit trade in cultural goods, by adopting scrupulous acquisition policy in line with the ICOM Code of Professional Ethics for museum professionals.

  4. The ICOM Code of Practice is available at: http://icom.museum/who-we-are/the-vision/code-of-ethics.html


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