US returns Benin Bronzes stolen by British colonial forces

Thousands of Benin Bronzes are scattered in museums worldwide after being looted by Britain in the late 19th century.

The "Head of a King", a dark, bronze sculpture, shows the king wearing a cap of coral beads with a single cowrie shell placed on the middle of his forehead
A bronze sculpture called the Head of a King or Oba is among 31 culturally precious objects returned to the Nigerian government on October 11, 2022 [Erik Gould/RISD Museum via AP]

A bronze sculpture of a West African king that was in the collection of a Rhode Island museum for more than 70 years is among 31 culturally precious objects that have been returned to the Nigerian government.

The sculpture, called the Head of a King, or Oba, which was held at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum (RISD) was among the objects transferred to the Nigerian National Collections during a ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC on Tuesday.

The Benin Bronzes were stolen in 1897 when British colonial forces ransacked and looted the kingdom of Benin, which is now in modern-day Nigeria.

“In 1897 the ‘Head of an Oba’ was stolen from the Royal Palace of Oba Ovonranwmen,” RISD Museum Interim Director Sarah Ganz Blythe said in a statement.

“The RISD Museum has worked with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments to repatriate this sculpture to the people of Nigeria where it belongs,” Blythe said.

The pieces that were stolen in the late 19th century included 29 that the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents voted in June to return to Nigeria and one object from the National Gallery of Art, officials said.

“Today, we address a historic injustice by returning the Benin Bronzes, magnificent examples of Benin’s culture and history,” Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, wrote on Twitter.

“Through this repatriation, we acknowledge a legacy of cultural theft and do our part to return African culture to Africans.”

The Head of a King, which is believed to date to the 1700s, was given to the RISD Museum by Lucy Truman Aldrich in 1939. It had been acquired in a 1935 sale of objects from the Benin Kingdom from the Knoedler Gallery in New York, the museum said in a statement.

A French customs stamp on the interior suggests it had been held in a French collection.

The RISD Museum said the sculpture is almost certainly one of the looted objects, even though it has not been able to trace the piece to a specific French or British collection.

The bronze head represents an oba, or king, of the Edo people of Benin, West Africa. The sculptures were commissioned by an incoming king to honour a predecessor and were placed on ancestral altars in the royal palace, the museum said.

The repatriation is part of a worldwide movement by cultural institutions to return artefacts stolen during colonial wars.

In August, Germany signed an agreement to transfer ownership of the Benin Bronzes in its museums to Nigeria. The collection was described as the most extensive transfer of museum artefacts from a colonial context to date and covers 512 objects which ended up in Berlin in the aftermath of the 1897 looting.

The same month, the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London announced it would transfer a collection of 72 Benin Bronzes to the Nigerian government.

Abba Isa Tijani, director-general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said she hoped the latest transfer would inspire other museums to return African artefacts.

“We hope for great collaborations with these museums and institutions and we have already opened promising discussions with them concerning this,” he said in a statement.

“The entire world is welcome to join in this new way of doing things. A way free from rancours and misgivings. A way filled with mutual respect.”

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies