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

At Aachronym, Ogbechi has just weighed into the debate on the upcoming sale at Sotheby’s with a very well argued post. With regard to the legal status (the legal rights of the Callwey’s having been questioned in some post in the various forum discussions, his emphasis):

The Benin kingdom and other wellwishers have mounted various legal challenges to the ownership and sales of Benin artworks by various Western institutions. So far, all these challenges have been dismissed without being given a proper hearing. I have reviewed some of these challenges and the possibility of bringing a new legal challenge through American courts and found that it is quite impossible to challenge these matters in court. The legal process here is very expensive and the barriers to getting your day in court are often too high to bear.


All across the world today, many stolen artworks are being repatriated to their countries of origins. No one is asking the cultural owners of these artworks to pay for the privilege of retrieving their ancestors' properties. Therefore, the relevant issue is whether Africans have any legal rights to their lives, natural and cultural resources. At what point does the brazen dispossession of Africa become a significant political, economic and moral issue? The Sotheby's sale is part of a broad disregard for the very real impact of dispossession on the reality and fortunes of black Africans today. There is no justice here and it does not appear that black Africans or their descendants will be afforded any kind of legal justice in the prevailing context of white Western power.

He situates those within the wider political, economic and cultural relations between African countries and the global North. In particular he highlights the contribution of historians of African arts in sustaining myths that undermine African attempts at restitution.

I think the greatest error that has been made in scholarly studies of African artworks and cultural patrimony is the pervasive idea that African artworks are products of nebulous “community action”. Artworks from Africa are always stripped of their links to particular individuals and economic contexts by their identification as the product of a group ethos. The Benin people did not create the artworks in question here: the pectoral masks of Iyoba Idia were created by specific Benin kings as part of the state’s political and economic obligations. It was stolen from the bedroom of Oba Ovonramwen in 1897. For over six hundred years, Benin kings spent huge portions of the national wealth supporting the creation of lavish artworks and sustaining the specialized guilds that made these artworks. You can still see descendants of the guilds in Benin. African artworks were commissioned by various individuals and institutions, paid for in very real economic terms, and then incorporated into the cultural equity of the individuals and institutions that commissioned them. These artworks are not random creations: they were part of complex systems of knowledge management and economic exchange. Their plunder left their owners significantly poorer.

Now I have to ask those of you who know better: Is part of the difference between African restitutions claims and those by the descendants of German Jews, among others, that our legal systems better cater to the interests of individuals rather than ethnic and cultural groups? And, is he right to identify the major reasons behind the different rates of success of the majority of African claimants for restitution as opposed to, say, the Egyptian government in prevailing racism? Or is the Egyptian government providing greater support for Zahi Hawass’ efforts?

Via H-Net and Facebook Ogbechi has started to actively engage in the campaign. The following draft letter of protest has been suggested by another Facebook user:

Dear Heinrich Schweizer,

On February 17 2011, Sotheby's will sell a rediscovered 16th century Benin ivory mask as well as other rare works from the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria consigned by the family of a key participant in the controversial 1897 Punitive Expedition.

However the movement for repatriation of these items started as far back as 1937 when Oba Akenzua II, grandson of Oba Ovonramwen from whose palace the whole items were looted in 1897, asked the British Government for a return of stolen art. Since then the struggle has been on.

Stolen art from Non-African or European origins are often returned and with apologies. Why is the case of these Nigerian sculptures and bronzes different?

I completely oppose Sotheby's selling of stolen Art from Africa.

You are being asked to kindly STOP selling stolen African Art and in particular to kindly keep your hands off arts and artefacts stolen from the controversial 1897 Punitive Expedition all of which are still very much in dispute.

Signed on this day,


Thursday December 23, 2010"

Schweizer is Sotheby's Department Head of African and Oceanic Art in New York.


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