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:
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.