Update V: On the Now-Cancelled Sale of a Benin Ivory Pendant Mask at Sotheby's

I suspect people are tired of hearing of the ‘Sotheby’s and the Benin Ivory pendant mask’ saga. Nevertheless, this is worth a quick mention here:

The case has finally made it into the international mainstream media! Yesterday, the UK’s Independent published an article which today has been quoted in the New York Times.

Meanwhile, the Nigerian Tribune reports that

There are strong indications that the Federal Government might have waded into the controversy surrounding the plan by Sotheby’s to auction some prized Benin artefacts, including a pendant mask of Queen Idia, that were stolen from the kingdom by British colonial officers.

The paper also suggests that

But, according to a source in the presidency, President Goodluck Jonathan had taken an interest in the matter. The president was said to have been following the development and had already initiated moves to get the stolen artefacts returned to the country. The source disclosed that President Jonathan had given instructions to the effect that no effort should be spared to get the Benin arts, as well as other such artefacts that symbolised the pride of Nigerians and their rich cultural heritage. The president also ordered that machinery should be set in motion to get the artefacts repatriated into the country.

Efforts by Nigerian government officials are only briefly mentioned in the article in the Independent when it quotes Orobosa Omo-Ojo, the Special Adviser to the Edo State Government on Arts, Culture and Tourism stating that

They [Sotheby’s and/or the Galway’s, I assume] should seek good counsel and refrain from selling the mask … Anything that makes them ignore this call [from] the Edo state government will [make us] use this as a starting point to protect our intellectual properties.

Beyond that, however, both the Independent article as well as the New York Times emphasised the activities of expatriate groups, in particular the Nigeria Liberty Forum, and informal social media alliances.

Probably as a result of the Christmas period, responses by academics continued to arrive in my inbox after Sotheby’s had already cancelled the sale. Most significantly for wider debates about repatriation, Peju Layiwola directly answered questions about the legitimate ownership of the artefacts removed from the palace in Benin in 1897 as well as arguments that throw into doubt the safety of these items if they were returned to Nigeria.

There is no contention between the Nigerian State and the Benin royal family over rights of ownership for Benin artefacts. Indeed, requests have been made by both the Nigerian state and the Benin royal family for the return of the looted works. … It may interest readers to know that when a few items of Oba Ovoramwen’s regalia, found in Britain, were returned in 1938, they were given directly to the reigning king, Oba Akenzua II. These artefacts did not find their way back to Europe or elsewhere, but were assimilated into the sartorial traditions of the palace. This underscores the importance of Benin cultural items as part of an existing culture.


On a completely different note – and I was trying to stay away from non-art related politics and news on this blog – but: those of you, who are praying, pray for a peaceful 2011 in Nigeria.

Comments

  1. A belated addition to the discussion (belated as in I somehow missed it earlier) by Ikhide Ikheloa, a regular blogger at Next Magazine:

    EMAIL FROM AMERICA: Please sell the mask
    (Next, January 29, 2011 11:25PM)

    Let me tell you a story. Eons ago, the white man came to the great Benin Kingdom and plundered the place, making away with several artifacts. These artifacts now enjoy lush air-conditioned exile abroad, where overfed folks with a lot of time on their hands coo over them in places called museums. They are now called art pieces. They don't want to come back to Nigeria because their siblings who were unfortunate not to have been stolen now languish in filth, misery and neglect in Nigerian "museums" and rue the day a monocled idiot did not steal them. Every now and then they traipse off with half the Nigerian populace and present forged papers to the Americans who yell at them and their ancestors and send them back to their hovels from whence they came.

    Unfortunately, the plight of the "art pieces" in London and other fancy places is the obsession of white liberals and their black sidekicks who truly believe that these pieces belong back in the great Benin Kingdom, which is no more. Recently, these idle busybodies got enraged when news came out that the offspring of the looters were set to sell a stolen Benin ivory mask for about $5 million. They staged petitions, protests, sit-ins and made all sorts of noises unto the Lord until Sotheby's the auction house halted the sale. Victory? Well, not quite: The looter-owners have probably realised that the controversy would raise the value of the mask. Next time, watch for the mask to sell for $10 million. Life is good.

    [...]

    Continue reading here: http://234next.com/csp/cms/sites/Next/ArtsandCulture/5665591-183/email_from_america_please_sell_the.csp

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