What future for Benin’s bronzes?

Proponents of repatriation of the remarkable sculptures have shown scant regard to Nigeria’s endemic corruption

This article is taken from the February 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

American campaigners of the Restitution Study Group have denounced as “blood metal” a collection of Benin bronzes the Smithsonian is in the process of sending back to Nigeria. The RSG, representing descendants of West African slaves, believes the move ignores their own legitimate claims. “Black people,” it says, “do not support enriching the heirs of slave traders just because they [too] are black.”

From 1946 to 1957 the British government purchased so-called Benin “bronzes” from the British Museum (described as duplicates) and at London auctions to give to museums in Lagos and Benin City. These were given to Nigeria at the new nation’s independence in 1960.

Benin’s oldest artworks are fine examples of lost-wax casting

Brass rather than bronze, Benin’s oldest artworks are fine examples of lost-wax casting, a skill largely lost in Nigeria today. Many were made by melting the brass and copper ingots, often formed into bracelets known as manillas, which since the sixteenth-century Portuguese traders had exchanged with the obas (kings) of Benin for slaves, ivory and other goods.

In the 1890s the kingdom of Benin was still keeping slaves as a blockade had made selling them almost impossible. Its oba had his human sacrifices crucified, beheaded or disembowelled. Meanwhile, British public opinion had been inflamed by the massacre of an unarmed expedition to Benin City in January 1897. Two Britons escaped to tell the story, and a punitive expedition was swiftly despatched, fighting through to the palace by 18 February and deposing the oba and his chiefs. The expedition’s surgeon Dr Felix Roth survived uninjured, though surgeon C.J. Fyfe RN was shot dead while tending the wounded. This extract from Roth’s journal for 18 February 1897 describes his first sight of the blood-crusted Benin bronzes of obas’ heads:

As we neared Benin City we passed several human sacrifices, live women-slaves gagged and pegged on their backs to the ground, the abdominal wall being cut in the form of a cross, and the uninjured gut hanging out. [Dead] men-slaves, with their hands tied at the back, and feet lashed together, also gagged, were lying about. As our white troops passed these horrors one can well imagine the effect on them — many were roused to fury, and many of the younger ones felt sick and ill at ease.

As we neared the city, sacrificed human beings were lying on the path and in the bush — even in the king’s compound the sight and stench of them was awful. Dead and mutilated bodies seemed to be everywhere — by God! May I never see such sights again! … In the king’s compound, on a raised platform or altar, running the whole breadth of each, beautiful idols were found. All of them were caked over with human blood, and by giving them a slight tap, crusts of blood would, as it were, fly off. 

 Lying about were big bronze heads, dozens in a row, with holes at the top, in which immense ivory tusks were fixed. One can form no idea of the impression it made on us. The whole place reeked of blood. Fresh blood was dripping off the figures and altars … Most of [our] men were in good health, but these awful sights rather shattered their nerves … We put out strong sentries, and slept the night amongst this filth in the open.

I must mention that both black troops (who led all the way, by the by) and all the white men behaved splendidly. All of you at home can be proud of them. 

It is hard not to be reminded of Richard Dimbleby’s sound recording at the liberation of the Nazis’ Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, which the BBC initially refused to believe and then delayed broadcasting for four days. The 1897 expedition carted away as spoils of war thousands of bronzes and carved ivories; those which weren’t sold to defray the expedition’s costs often remained with officers and their families. In the twentieth century many ended up in museums or were sold by executors on the open market, where they were so little valued that the Colonial Office spent only modestly to stock Nigeria’s two museums.

One officer gave to his son’s Cambridge college, Jesus, the bronze cockerel whose return in 2021 was a forerunner of the current rush to restitute. Last October the UK Charity Commission gave permission to Cambridge University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to make an ex-gratia gift of its bronzes to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). Trustees generally justify their restitutions not as the return of stolen goods — today’s Nigerian state never owned the bronzes, and the present oba’s ancestors were monsters — but as a “moral obligation”.

An application from Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum to restitute is on hold while the Charity Commission awaits its response to the RSG’s claim that it has a better moral right to the bronzes. The RSG speaks for Americans who trace their descent from West African slaves sold from the Benin area and has urged the Commissioners to leave the artworks where they are, safely housed and accessible for all to admire, here and around the world. Its legal bid to stop the Smithsonian restituting bronzes failed in part, and 20 pieces were handed over privately to the NCMM in October. Another 20 bronzes are pending deaccessioning and the RSG’s lawsuit is to be adjudicated shortly.

What, then, of the artworks inherited by Nigeria in 1960? In September 2002 Martin Bailey of the Art Newspaper reported his discovery that a 12-inch bronze oba’s head at Windsor Castle was not a replica as Queen Elizabeth had been told, but the original, stolen from Lagos Museum. Ahead of his state visit to Britain in June 1973, General Yakubu Gowon had commissioned a replica, but it was unconvincing. One Saturday he phoned Dr Ekpo Eyo, director of the Antiquities Department and head of the National Museum, to say that he was coming round that morning to select a gift. Eyo rushed to the museum and managed to hide a number of its finest, unique pieces before Gowon turned up and took away the oba’s head. Her Majesty was told the gift was a replica, and this was believed — at least in the UK — until 2002.

In 1978 I was on a photographic assignment in Nigeria, and having admired the bronzes in the British Museum, I asked if I might see the local museum’s pieces while we were in Benin. This was not welcome but I persisted and was alarmed to find many gaps in the display cases and shelves. An embarrassed curator told me quietly that when “the Big Man” (he meant General Olusegun Obasanjo) or one of his ministers wanted a gift for a foreign dignitary, they would send to the Benin Museum; and you didn’t argue with men with guns. I can’t prove the truth of what I was told, but given what we now know what General Gowon had done five years previously, it’s feasible – and looting Benin’s museum would have been less obvious than stealing from the central museum in Lagos.

I’ve tried repeatedly to find out where there could be inventories of both museums’ holdings in 1960, and which of those items they can produce today, but no-one seems to know where the lists and photos might be. The Biafran War can’t explain missing pieces since Benin’s museum wasn’t looted, though it’s hardly safe today: in September the Nigerian government, losing up to a fifth of each day’s oil output to theft and sabotage and desperate to protect revenue, hired the rebel warlord “Tompolo” to protect oil pipelines instead of blowing them up. Oporoza in Delta State, Tompolo’s base, is just 50 miles from Benin.

Digital Benin went online in November, an illustrated database of Benin Bronzes around the world. The 131 collections listed range from the British Museum’s 944 pieces down to the Hearst Museum of California’s single brass bell. News stories in the art press acclaimed the new database, only one reporter straying so far off-message as to point out that the Kingdom of Benin profited well from the slave trade, an uncomfortable truth which no-one connected with Digital Benin is keen to admit.

Nearly all the 5,246 objects on Digital Benin are well illustrated and described: photos show all but two of Lagos Museum’s 81 declared bronzes, though eleven of them appear only in black-and-white photos from old file cards. The museum held 90 bronzes at independence in 1960, and naturally the oba’s head which Gowon stole in 1973 doesn’t feature. 

the mystery within digital benin is the Benin museum’s 285-piece collection. Around 130 works have modern colour photos, but 155 (56 per cent of the entire collection) are illustrated only by old sepia prints stapled to file cards. Why no modern photos? Can Nigeria’s NCMM produce these 155 pieces for independent verification? What strikes one is how few pieces of much merit are listed for Benin. Were file cards also removed when good pieces vanished?

I believe I saw better bronzes still in place in the museum in 1978. In 2016 the Sunday Telegraph’s Colin Freeman visited Benin to learn more about the demand just made for the (since returned) Cambridge cockerel, but found the museum “currently closed for refurbishment” and couldn’t gain entry. Nor apparently did the same newspaper’s Craig Simpson who was there in November. Its current director strongly denies that anything has ever been stolen.

One striking bronze shows a paralysed oba with two attendants. It has accession number 79B:R:58 with an old sepia print. The identical piece appears in a modern colour photo with a number ending in 54 (and two screw holes on the wall beside it showing where something else has been removed). Whatever 54 once was, its photo and description seem to have been substituted with those of the original piece 58.

The unique and charming 80B:R:36 (two chunky feet and a torso), is not shown in a modern colour photo: if it cannot be produced, surely it should be reported to the Art Loss Register without delay? Any trustees who send bronzes back to Nigeria without first securing proof-of-life of the pieces in Nigeria’s two museums’ old sepia prints on Digital Benin will not have done their due diligence.

The british museum’s curators have steered a dignified course so far, but they can’t have been pleased to hear that activists in Benin are now in revolt against the projected Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), to which the British Museum had already contributed £3 million and which would host revolving displays in Benin of bronzes loaned from European and American museums. This, the objectors say, is colonialist infiltration, and nor must anything be given to the Nigerian government’s NCMM — everything restituted must become the oba’s personal property.

Investigating for The Atlantic, David Frum interviewed key players and pulled no punches; it should be required reading for any curators or trustees minded to restitute. Frum describes Nigeria’s endemic corruption, the decrepit condition of the state-run Lagos Museum today, and how control of restituted bronzes has developed into a three-way tussle. Everyone with any power or authority in Nigeria has a keen interest in projects such as EMOWAA, which would bring a budget of tens of millions for building, millions more in yearly upkeep. The possibilities for commissions and diversion of funds are endless.

Frum describes the Nigerian state, without exaggeration, as “almost purely predatory” and “parasitic”, yet the state fancies not the proposed EMOWAA at Benin City but some other new museum at the artificial federal capital Abuja, a cultural desert. The man behind EMOWAA, Edo State’s governor, will be out of office next year; and if everything restituted became instead the oba’s personal property, he would be free to sell pieces whenever he felt like it. He boycotted celebrations for the launch of Digital Benin.

Nigeria’s government is waging endless low-level war in the north against Muslim factions to whom representation of humans or animals is haram. Considering what the Taliban and IS did to antiquities and archaeological sites in places they overran, one doesn’t like to imagine what could happen if in the rush to restitute, the world’s museums and galleries sent to Nigeria all their celebrated bronzes, and the fanatics then pushed their campaign as far south as Benin City.

The country receives enormous revenue from its oil and gas deposits, yet so much is lost to corruption that apparently museums in Germany, France, UK and USA will have to fund the EMOWAA, or whatever museum houses the returned bronzes. In December, Germany’s foreign minister triumphantly handed over a large collection of bronzes from her country’s museums, though oddly, Germany seems less keen to denounce its own colonial crimes in, for example, Namibia.

If it seeks to claim the moral high ground, today’s Nigerian state has work to do

If it seeks to claim the moral high ground, today’s Nigerian state has work to do. General Obasanjo, still with us, should deny that either he or any of his junta were responsible for artworks vanishing from the country’s museums as alleged in 1976 by the head of the British Museum’s ethnography section, and as General Gowon is now known to have done in 1973. 

There is also the mystery of exactly what the two museums inherited in 1960, and where all those bronzes are today. A leading expert tells me that though in 1914 the British government gave the reinstated oba a full set of casts of the British Museum’s renowned bronze altar panels, those replicas have now vanished too. Where are they today?

The restitution lobby likes to portray Benin bronzes housed overseas as proceeds of a crime and which must therefore be returned. But the 1897 expedition did stamp out human sacrifice and try to abolish slavery.

For the RSG, the bronzes are proceeds of centuries of a greater crime, being literally cast from metal exchanged for their manacled ancestors. It wants the bronzes retained in museums around the world with suitable captions to memorialise both that crime and African craftsmen whose skills had died out long before the modern country of Nigeria came into being.

Liberal guilt about colonial theft seems to be the driving force behind restitution so far, but surely the descendants of slaves who today call these bronzes “blood metal” have a right to be heard? Their African ancestors escaped being sacrificed only to be sold into slavery across the Atlantic.

The prudent course is for museums to send Nigeria indistinguishable 3D-printed replicas, at least until that country one day has reliable electricity, security, can guarantee conservation standards, and is safer to visit: it has a thriving kidnapping industry and a friend who just visited on business was protected by six armed guards at all times, at his hosts’ insistence.

Meanwhile, may the descendants of African slaves, and art lovers everywhere, continue to admire these inspirational bronzes by African artists in their own local museums and galleries in the USA, the UK and around the world. This is art for the ages, not just for today’s guilt-obsessed curators and trustees to dispose of as they fancy.

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