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Nigeria: Controversy Over the Sale of Stolen Benin Mask

Sotheby’s, in its sales promotion for February 17, 2011, announced sales of six pieces of Benin origin, including the mask of Queen Idia – the first Queen Mother of Benin Empire. Sotheby's is one of world's oldest auction house.

After bloggers and online activists using social media sites protested against the sale, Sotheby's decided to cancel the sale.

Nigeria Liberty Forum set up an online petition and a Facebook page in an effort to put a stop to the auction of a 16th century Benin mask stolen during the invasion of the Benin people by the British. Nigeria Liberty Forum is a UK based Nigerian pro-democracy group of sympathisers and volunteers who share a passion for grassroots political engagement and participation.

Members of the British Expeditionary Force posing with looted art from the palace of the Benin King, Nigeria. Photo Source: Myweku.com


Another online petition has been created by MyWeku to build on the stop the sell of 16th Century Benin Mask petition because “the wider issue of selling, exhibiting and dealing in looted stolen African artefacts remains largely unresolved.”

Art historian Professor Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie was shocked after hearing about the proposed auction of stolen Benin Artworks:

I read the announcement of the sale and was struck by its brazenness. Sotheby's is trafficking in stolen goods and it is doing so without any concern for the fact of its brazen criminality. It is clear that the Benin artworks are a contested collection of cultural artifacts. The history of their plunder from Benin is not in doubt, and the Benin Kingdom has never at any time given up its claim to these artworks. There has been significant amount of words written about the history of the British plunder of Benin and why the artworks should be repatriated. How is it then that despite the constant requests for the repatriation of these artworks and their clear identification as stolen goods, they continue to be sold by firms such as Sotheby’s without any hesitation?

How can the descendants of Sir Henry Gallway, who participated in the looting of Benin city in 1897 have legal ownership of stolen goods?:

The legal issue here is quite simple: is it ever possible to have legal ownership of a stolen good? In other words, if an artwork or piece of property is clearly identified as a stolen item, can anyone other than the known owner of that stolen item ever have a valid legal claim to it? Western institutions that hold African cultural patrimony seem to believe they can legally own stolen goods and so far haven't shown any willingness to examine their shameful actions in this regard…
ll the Benin objects identified in the proposed sale are clearly identified as belonging to Benin kings who did not cede their title to the artworks to anyone (the coerced abdication of the Benin throne enforced by the invading British would be illegal in any court today: in 1991, the USA went to war to prevent Iraq from annexing Kuwait based on such principles). There is also no doubt that all Benin artworks in any museum of institution in the world belongs to His Highness, Oba Erediauwa, great grandson of Oba Ovonramwen and the reigning kind of Benin.

Deadria responded to his post arguing that the bronzes were proceeds from slave trade, which undermines Benin's high moral ground:

Don't forget, these bronzes were usually made with metal (manillas) that the Portugese used as currency to buy slaves from Benin. This does not make it right for the Gallway heirs to profit from the sale of the stolen cultural artifacts, but it does undermine Benin's moral high road.

How will Benin use the bronzes to atone for the fact that the bronzes are, literally, blood money? Will they loan them to Diasporan museums gratis? or invite African diasporans to Benin (gratis) to teach them the Benin bronzing method? Something like this would give Benin/Nigeria more strength, politically and spiritually, in their demand.

Anonymous responded to Deadria's “moral high ground” argument saying,

Deadria, you are right that some of the bronze used to make these works are at least proceeds from slave trading. However, while it may undermine Benin moral high ground, it does not undercut it. Using the same logic, Britain should cede all the lands and resources it acquired through slave trading and colonial conquest. The USA should give up the country to Native Americans and relocate everyone back to their countries of origin. The issue is that the bronzes were part of the National wealth of the Benin people.

MyWeku posted short videos give a sense of the history of Benin Bronzes and published a note from Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie to H-AfrArts Network:

In this note Prof. Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie asks some of the difficult questions that will invariably shape debate on this subject and ponts us to a couple of information sources that one could pick up a thing or two about stolen African artefacts.

Following the canceling of the sale, he wrote another post entitled, “Give Me What is Mine (apologies Burning Spear)” [Jamaican Reggae star, Burning Spear, has a song by the same title]:

Oba Erediauwa has formally demanded that Western museums and collectors return the Benin bronzes. I have written about these demands at length on this blog and have even started an academic journal –Critical Interventions—specifically to engage the issue: the journal inaugurated a formal discourse on the aesthetics, politics and economics of African cultural patrimony as it affects African ownership of the intellectual property rights of its indigenous systems of knowledge and cultural practices. Interestingly enough, the current issue of the journal is in production on the subject of “Who Owns African Cultural Patrimony”

Benin masks are not “an amorphous product of African art”:

They are private property, bought by and paid for by the Benin kings through massive expenditure of national treasure, and constitute the wealth of the kingdom. These bronzes were commissioned for specific historical events, the artists who produced them were paid for their work, and the artworks were used in very prescribed manner and also as a store of value. The looting and dispersal of the Benin bronzes deprived the Benin king of his private property and deprives his descendants of equity in this stolen property.

Katrin Schulze reproduces online debates taking place about the ownership of artefacts produced in and by Africans and removed during the colonial period:

…the majority of comments I have read there and elsewhere strongly supported the campaign to reclaim these artefacts for the Kingdom of Benin and/or Nigeria.

On a different note, Soifer Alexander, among others, problematised the social relations that defined the artefact’s production.

If all or part of creating an artefact was slave labor, do we assign the ownership to slave owners and thus condone slavery?

With particular regard to Benin, Ogundiran refutes the notion that Benin’s wealth was founded upon slave trade or slave labour:

Benin contributed the least to the Atlantic slavery in the entire West African Atlantic seaboard despite the facts that with its powers and military might it cold have become the main mart for eslaved captives. Its lukewarm attitude towards human trafficking was unprofitable to its European trading partners … The artists of Benin were not enslaved. They worked for the king and for other elites, and they were compensated for their brilliant works. Yes, there were slaves and other socially marginalised people in Benin but Benin was never a slave based society …

Following Sotheby's’ decision to cancel the sale, what is next?:

As one of the campaigners involved in puting pressure on Sotheby’s into cancelling the planned sale of the 16th century Queen Idia Mask from Benin asked after the news broke…..WHAT NEXT? A small and significant battle has been won no doubt, however, the wider issue of stolen pieces of African artifacts still remain unresolved.

There are a plethora of ideas and opinions out there and in the next few days, weeks and months we shall aim to add to this post by bringing you the comments of thought leaders engaged in the campaign to find appropriate answers and a sustainable solution to Africa’s stolen cultural heritage.

Your thoughts are just as invaluable in shaping a way forward. Add them to the comments section below.

  • http://www.xlibris.com/Nagbe.html Bakeh N. Wleh Nagbe, Sr.

    I am so glad that this time around; all the dirts and atrocities British soldiers committed against poor African villagers on order of the so-called White Master; in the name of “Punitive Expedition” of 1897 – whose member pose shameless, and degracefully with looted African art works. Is this God Forgiveness? Now the whole world can see for themselves what Colonial British did in Africa and to the African native whose Land they occupied with force at gun-point. Is this the way the so-called Whiteman civilization work? Of British is not along in this disrespectful attititude toward the native-Africa; Germany and nearly all the European colonial occupiers are guilty as well of this kind of Practice. The Mask should return to Benin to it rightful owner–that is the people of Benin. And thereafter, the British government should do everything within its power to send all such stolen properties back to Africa, China, India and sofore….

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