John Picton on Restitution of Benin Artefacts: Compromise, Negotiate, Support
Suppose that a secure display facility were to be built in Benin City that conformed to modern international standards of conservation and climatic control: the moral case would then be very hard to ignore
In 1897 Benin City, to the west of the lower Niger in what is now Nigeria (and distinct from the modern country of Benin, formerly Dahomey), was invaded by British military and naval forces in retaliation for the killing of British personnel by rebel chiefs in the area. The royal palace and much of the city was destroyed, the king was sent into exile, returning to Benin only in 1914 for his burial, and several thousand works of art in cast brass, sculpted ivory and wood, wrought iron, coral beadwork, woven textiles and other fabrics, and other materials, were looted by the British personnel. No plan of the palace was made, and no record of the distribution of its artworks. It was a process of both folly and vandalism legitimated only by the status of the officers who, of course, bagged all the best material.
Almost immediately this art began to be disposed of in London salerooms, the ethnographic museum in Berlin quickly acquiring what remains the finest and most comprehensive collection of Benin art amongst all the museums of the world. Once the British Museum had woken up to what was happening it secured a collection of 16th-century brass plaques, and in the years that followed began to put together what is now the second-best collection of Benin art; and as material continued to appear in the salerooms of London almost every museum in Europe and America with any claim to collections of international status was able to acquire Benin material. Moreover, in the late 1940s and through the 1950s, collaboration between the Nigerian colonial government and its Department of Antiquities, and British Museum personnel, the Nigerian Museum, Lagos, was able to acquire what is the third-best collection of Benin art. Meanwhile, in Benin City itself a small museum was founded to house the few objects that had missed the hands of the marauding British in 1897.
Upon his succession to the throne, in 1914, the new king, Eweka II, set about the wholesale reinvention of Benin City, reviving its ritual and ceremonial culture, making the best of such political authority as the colonial overlords would allow within their policy of government by indirect rule, and commissioning the writing of an authorised history of the city, kingdom and empire, by a local chief. Eweka also commissioned new works of art, setting up altars dedicated to his father and grandfather, and their predecessors: the artists, after all, had not been exiled nor their skills somehow taken from them. It was altogether the greatest and most successful of all anti-colonial projects in sub-Saharan Africa; and in Benin City today the king retains his authority (even the public display of a photograph of the king must be authorised by the palace, its secret police keeping a very close eye on things). Moreover, throughout Benin history the prestige of kingship has depended, at least in part, on the king’s ability to command the work of artists and direct innovation in Benin visual culture. The prestige of kingship and the ownership of works of art are indeed so intertwined that it should come as no surprise that there is a hunger in Benin City for the return of the material looted in 1897.
Yet there has been no formal request by a competent authority for repatriation and no attempt at diplomatic negotiation or, even, litigation. Indeed, it would be a complex exercise given the distribution of Benin art through almost every city and museum of Europe and America, where it takes its rightful place alongside the art of every continent and civilisation in world history thereby demolishing the once-fashionable attribution (in Europe) of “primitivism” to African art and civilisation. The moral argument in favour of Benin City remains nevertheless, not least because the looting of its art is not in dispute, which suggests that some kind of compromise ought to be possible. Here are some suggestions: the recognition by the museums of Europe and America that they do not have unproblematic ownership rights to this material—some recognition, indeed, that the king of Benin might have a case; the loan of material from reserve collections for display in Benin City, whether of a temporary or permanent basis; traveling exhibitions in which some of the great museums—the British Museum, The Museum of Ethnography at Berlin’s Dahlem complex, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, for example—might collaborate so that Nigerians get to see this material in Nigeria. The problem here, of course, is that adequate facilities of international standard do not exist in Nigeria. But suppose that a secure display facility were to be built in Benin City that conformed to modern international standards of conservation and climatic control: the moral case would then be very hard to ignore.
These considerations have arisen in recent weeks because of the proposed sale at Sotheby’s of an ivory mask carved around or soon after 1500. It is a costume ornament worn by the king, one of five known of this type: one in the British Museum, one in the New York Met; one in Seattle, and one in Stuttgart. It had been acquired by Sir Henry Galway (or Gallwey, 1859-1949), as Deputy Commissioner and Vice Consul of the Niger Coast Protectorate, and responsible for sending the king into exile; and the mask had remained with the Galway family since his death. The proposed sale would certainly have created a new record for the value of a work of African art, but the mask was withdrawn from sale, possibly because of the volume of protest coming from supporters of repatriation. Its present whereabouts and future are currently unknown. One imagines a private sale will be negotiated for a sum far less than that anticipated by public auction, and as the purchaser will prefer to avoid the attention of the repatriation lobby the mask will effectively be lost to public view for a generation. This is surely an outcome to no-one’s advantage.
John Picton is Emeritus Professor of African Art at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London