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Looting, Restitution, and Gas: An Update on the Benin Bronzes

Benin Bronzes Alamy
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Written by Mike Wells

Bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin can be found in many of the major museums in the West. In recent years there has been a concerted and misguided attempt to “return” them. For what reason? To whom, exactly? And how can the returned objects be protected? Cambridge has indulged in restitution; Oxford has applied to do so as well. Other British museums wait in the wings. In this important article, Mike Wells reviews the history of the Benin Bronzes, their insecurity if returned to Nigerian museums, and their very recent use by the German government as sweeteners when cutting deals for gas and other sources of fossil fuel. The article calls on the Charity Commission to consider all these factors and take appropriate action by blocking any further moves at restitution.

The Benin Bronzes, ancient bronze castings from Benin, are the subjects of intense cultural conflict. Nigerians clamour for the return of their alleged national cultural heritage. Post-colonial agitators and museum curators wish to strip them out of Western museums and send them back to Africa. Meanwhile, the Restitution Study Group, which speaks for Americans descended from slaves, contests their return because most African-Americans trace their descent from West Africans sold to European traders at the coast, and the Obas (kings) of the Kingdom of Benin were among the most prolific sellers of slaves. Payment for these slaves was made in brass manillas, often in the form of heavy, chunky bracelets, from which the Bronzes were cast. Why, then, send these Bronzes back to the very people whose ancestors were responsible for the enslavement of Africans?

The Benin Bronzes

The Bronzes, dating from the fifteenth century, are varied. They include heads of Obas, depictions of their murdered adversaries, animals with magical powers, and the rectangular relief plaques so admired by visitors to the British Museum. As pieces of art, the Bronzes are very valuable. The record selling price for a Benin Bronze stands at $4.7m, which one artefact sold at auction at Sotheby’s in New York in 2007 fetched. However, auction houses are becoming ever more concerned about issues of provenance, and the biggest deals are now done in private. (An essential reference work on this is Barnaby Phillips’s 2021 book “Loot”.) [1]

Around four thousand Bronzes were shipped back to London as spoils of war after the 1897 punitive expedition which deposed the then Oba and his regime, after which they were distributed among many great museums around the world. The Restitution Study Group argues (and metallurgists agree) that a significant proportion of the Bronzes were cast from the metal using which their enslaved ancestors had been purchased – quite literally rendering them “blood metal” – and it wants them preserved safely in museums, on display with full explanations of their origin. On no account, the Group argues, should they be sent back to profit modern Nigeria or the descendants of slave traders – and quite possibly to vanish altogether.

This argument is at last being taken seriously by museum trustees. They must also acknowledge that, as Barnaby Phillips demonstrates, the Bronzes in the Nigerian state’s care since independence in 1960 have been disappearing on an alarming scale. It is thought that more than two thousand Bronzes are now in private hands, whether looted in modern Nigeria, or derived in some other way. In November 2022 the newly-launched Digital Benin [2], a German-curated and -financed online database, listed 5,246 Bronzes in 131 institutions around the world, including 27 British ones. But it also revealed obvious problems with Nigeria’s own collections and record-keeping. The shambolic state of Nigeria’s museums, and of its National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), is plain for all to see. Many Nigerians accept that any Bronzes not kept hidden away in vaults risk being stolen, as has happened so often – and been well reported – in recent decades.

The History of the Bronzes

Museum trustees must also deal with contested history: the Kingdom of Benin’s artworks were by no means the simple loot of a vicious colonial expedition in 1897, as many campaigners allege, but were spoils of a just war which deposed a murderous regime, that of the last wholesale slave traders of West Africa. The true history of the Obas’ regime of terror, and of the Bronzes they owned, is becoming better known. A peaceful British expedition to the Oba in Benin City in early 1897, comprising ten Europeans and around 250 African translators and guides, porters and labourers was ambushed by the Oba’s forces. Only two Europeans escaped the massacre alive to tell the tale and many of the African survivors were taken to Benin City and used as human sacrifices. A second, punitive British expedition followed not long after. The eye-witness account of the physician who accompanied the second party, Dr. Felix Norman Roth, has been quoted and cited many times recently. He saw the remains of hundreds of human sacrifices strewn around the royal palace in various stages of evisceration and decomposition. “Dead and mutilated bodies seemed to be everywhere — by God! May I never see such sights again!” wrote Roth, proceeding to describe the Oba’s sacrificial altars with their carved ivory tusks and the blood-soaked bronze heads.[3] Another of the surgeons with the expedition reported burying or cremating six hundred human corpses found there.[4]

The British embargo on slave trading had long since stopped Benin’s kings selling slaves into the Atlantic trade, but slaves were still needed in large numbers for human sacrifice by both the Oba and his chiefs, and were obtained by assaults on the neighbouring tribes in what is now Nigeria. Restitution campaigners might like to consider whether the British punitive expedition was not, in reality, one of the empire’s great humanitarian achievements, an act of mercy to be hailed wherever in the world the Bronzes are displayed? The British Empire was guilty of some indefensible episodes but the 1897 Punitive Expedition to Benin was not, by any reasonable measure, one of them.

German State Policy

Now there is a further twist. Last year (2022) the German government transferred to the NCMM the ownership of 1,130 Benin Bronzes held in five of its state museums. This was hailed in reports [5] as the start of an unstoppable wave of restitutions from “guilty” museums in Europe and North America. But was it, on the contrary, a remarkable act of state cynicism?

On 15 December 2022, a tanker of liquid natural gas from Nigeria docked at Wilhelmshaven, the first consignment of a multi-year deal which will alleviate the energy crisis precipitated by Russia’s war on Ukraine. Then, five days later, on 20 December, German foreign minister Annalena Baerbock and culture minister Claudia Roth, both members of the German Green Party, flew to the Nigerian capital, Abuja, to hand over twenty of the 1,130 Benin artefacts whose ownership German state museums have transferred to Nigeria’s NCMM.

The large delegation to Abuja included more politicians, some from opposition parties, and the directors of the five German state museums concerned. Baerbock had ignored her own ministry’s advice against travel to Abuja or Benin other than on the most essential business – which this evidently was – due to the dangers of kidnapping and terrorism.

The Oba of Benin boycotted the celebration, just as he had absented himself from the launch of the Digital Benin database the previous month. No one spoiled the fun in Abuja by pointing out the hypocrisy of Baerbock’s address. Despite her rhetoric, these Bronzes do not represent Nigeria’s national culture, nor did they ever belong to a state: they were the private property of the Benin Oba who was deposed in 1897, and his descendants continue to claim them today.

Baerbock was happy to denounce crimes from colonial times, admitting briefly that Germany, too, had “caused tremendous suffering” – a most modest reference to, among other things, the massacre of tens of thousands of Hereros in Germany’s own African colony, now known as Namibia. And the neatest irony? Baerbock and Roth both represent the Green Party, which is enraged by Germany’s resumption of open-cast coal mining, and apparently angry also about the massive Nigerian fossil-fuel deal. But needs must, and business can be done. In 2018, former Chancellor Angela Merkel, alongside the CEO of Siemens AG, signed a memorandum of understanding which the following year became a €3bn contract for Siemens to sort out Nigeria’s endless electricity crisis. In the other direction, Siemens is responsible for the tanker-loads of LNG coming to Germany and the design of a 4000 km pipeline to bring Nigerian hydrogen across the Sahara to Europe. The viability of such a vulnerable pipeline northwards to Europe remains to be seen.

A home for the Bronzes?

The obvious home for the restituted bronzes is the NCMM’s Lagos Museum, but this is both insecure and decrepit. From 2010, therefore, the Benin Dialogue Group, bringing together Western museums with the NCMM, has discussed the construction of a new museum in Nigeria which might house rotating loans. Nigerians could thereby see selections from foreign museums, whose risk would be limited to the pieces out on loan at any one time.

The Benin Dialogue Group’s theoretical museum evolved into a design for an Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin (EMOWAA) which, as David Frum described in his masterly article on the bronzes in The Atlantic last year, then degenerated into a struggle within Nigeria for control of any new museum and its budget, and of any bronzes repatriated to it. [6] But the Digital Benin database did emerge from these discussions, masterminded by the Museum am Rothenbaum, Hamburg, and funded by €1.5m from the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation – which, its director says, is entirely independent of Siemens AG and its enormous Nigerian contracts.

The decision of the German government to simply hand over all its Bronzes, rather than loan them, torpedoed the project so painstakingly discussed by the Benin Dialogue Group. Its Hamburg meeting on 6 and 7 March this year decided nothing of note, beyond agreeing to reconvene in Sweden in May 2024. The Dialogue Group appears now to be an irrelevance, superseded by state-to-state negotiations over fossil fuels, energy contracts, and the return of the Bronzes. Moreover, it would appear from Matthias Busse’s report in Die Welt on 14 March that the many millions of pounds and euros in development money already given to the EMOWAA project by the British Museum and the German government are being diverted to what will now be the Oba’s own personal museum, the foundations for which are already being dug.

A journalist with a keen eye on the German government’s behaviour is Dr. Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin, retired Professor of Ethnology at the University of Göttingen. In four trenchant newspaper articles over the last couple of years [7], she has deplored Germany’s abandonment of ethical standards.  When Germany transferred ownership of its vast collection on July 1st last year, Hauser-Schäublin observed that the foreign ministry’s ‘Declaration of Understanding’ scarcely seemed concerned with where the artworks actually went. Each museum has its own contract with Nigeria’s NCMM. When Die Welt’s Matthias Busse asked to see the contract signed by Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum, he was turned down: the Nigerian side had requested secrecy. Restituted Bronzes risk being lost, and certainly lost to scholarship. For example, when the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC handed back 20 pieces, in private, last year, the contract gave full image rights to the NCMM, and the Smithsonian is now forbidden to show anyone but its own staff the photos of the Bronzes it once displayed to all museum vistors.

The Looting of Nigerian Art

Dr Hauser-Schäublin’s most damning criticism in her newspaper articles is aimed squarely at the NCMM and its stewardship of Nigeria’s state collections since 1960. She cites scholars, including respected Nigerians, who contend that the Lagos Museum once had a large collection of superb quality – hundreds of Bronzes – many of which seem to have vanished. In 1980, Philip Dark’s “Illustrated Catalogue of Benin Art” listed 270 pieces which were at that time in the Lagos Museum. Just 81 items were reported to Digital Benin, 11 of them shown only in old sepia photos stapled to file cards and two with no photo at all. Where are the rest?

Hauser-Schäublin cites two bronze reliefs, transferred from the British Museum to the British curators who were building Nigeria’s national collection in situ in the early 1950s. They were stolen after independence, and found their way to New York’s Metropolitan Museum in 1991. It was only after Phillips’s book “Loot” told their disgraceful story that the Met relented and returned them to Nigeria. But did they ever reach a museum there? They are not on Digital Benin, and nor are three pieces which Boston’s Museum of Fine Art returned in 2014. Eyo and Willett’s 1980 catalogue “Treasures of Ancient Nigeria” includes a relief plaque of a crocodile, still bearing the British Museum’s old accession number: a legitimate transfer, before independence. But though safely housed in Lagos in 1980, it is nowhere to be found on Digital Benin today.

The NCMM’s Benin Museum’s holdings on Digital Benin are even more suspect. 285 pieces are listed – many of them just fragments – but the majority, 155, are illustrated only by old file-card photos. I was in that museum in 1978; I asked about the obvious gaps in display cases and shelves, and wrote in History Reclaimed last year and in The Critic’s February issue this year about the disturbing answer. Nigeria’s museums need a team of efficient and incorruptible curators to locate the state’s museum inventories at independence in 1960; to add to them everything bought or restituted since then; to photograph everything that can be found today; and to circulate photos and descriptions of anything that cannot be found. Until this audit takes place, it would be irresponsible for Western museums to persist in restituting originals – unless, like Germany, they have another national agenda which makes this imperative.

So what hope have the Nigerian people of seeing on display the artworks they already own? One theory is that the NCMM’s storerooms, particularly in Lagos, may still be crammed with dusty, forgotten treasures which have to be kept locked away to avoid theft, in which case it would be an issue of display rather than of looting in recent years. But if the Bronzes turn out not to be there at all, where did they go? The 22 bronzes so far “brought home” and given back to “you, the Nigerian people” as minister Baerbock gushed in December, have not been seen by the people at all. According to Barbara Plankensteiner, the convenor of the Benin Dialogue Group, they are locked away somewhere “in Benin”. She refused to be drawn further. Plankensteiner was praised by the Nigerian delegation as “the doyenne of restitutions”.

The British Connection

The British Museum’s participation in the Benin Dialogue Group throws up many questions. According to the Benin Dialogue Group’s March 2021 press release [8], when EMOWAA was still a live project, “Members of the Benin Dialogue Group, have as a condition of being in the group, all agreed to support a major reunion of the Benin works of art in Benin City.” The Group’s 2023 report lists the British Museum as a “participating institution” and a former curator at the museum, Dr. Lissant Bolton, among the members of its steering committee. The British Museum might say it has no intention of breaking UK law, which, since 1963, prohibits the deaccessioning of items from the Museum, and that its Dialogue Group membership and support for “a major reunion” implies only loans. But it is hard to see how the Museum could responsibly lend to the only museum the Benin Dialogue Group now professes to support, the Oba’s own Benin Royal Museum, while he claims that all Benin Bronzes everywhere are his stolen private property. Bronzes recently restituted from museums in Britain, America and, above all, Germany, have been received by the NCMM in the name of the Nigerian people. But the NCMM is diverting them to the Oba of Benin himself, and they may or may not be on show one day in his private Benin Royal Museum. Abba Isa Tijani, the NCMM’s director, is no longer bothering to conceal this inconvenient truth.

Beyond the British Museum, most of the other major British museums may not make an “ex gratia gift” – as it is known if the object in question does not further the museum’s own work – without the Charity Commission’s permission. This was quietly given last October to the Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. But this museum must shortly answer a Freedom of Information request for minutes of its meetings and anything else relevant to the proposed gift of items from its collection to Nigeria. When last contacted, the Charity Commission was still deliberating on the application from Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum to restitute items it possesses. All the other UK holders of Bronzes listed on Digital Benin have been politely requested to declare their intentions.

Given the scale of the thefts of Benin Bronzes and their uncertain fate in Nigeria; the claim of the current Oba that all of them belong to him alone, in any case; the argument of the Restitution Study Group that items should never go back to the descendants of African slave traders; and the cynicism of German policy which is trading artefacts for hydrocarbons and petrochemicals, this may be an interesting year.

It must be among the first principles in any transfer of artefacts, for whatever reason, that the objects concerned should be securely held, be placed on display, and should be available to scholars. None of these conditions are met if the Benin Bronzes are sent to Nigeria. The Charity Commission should decline the request from Oxford and from all other museums in this and similar cases.

 

ENDNOTES

[1] Barnaby Phillips: Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes: (Revised and Updated Edition). Oneworld Edns, 2022. 978-0861543137

[2] digitalbenin.org

[3] H Ling Roth Great Benin, its Customs, Arts and Horrors. Routledge & Kegan Paul, London 1903, Appendix II.

[4] “The Lancet” 03.07.1897, pp 43-44.

[5] The Guardian (London) 21.12.2022 pp1 & 25.  The Times (London) 21.12.2022 p38. A dozen reports by Matthias Busse in Die Welt and other German newspapers from November 2021 onwards detail the process in Germany.

[6] David Frum, ‘Who Really Benefits When Western Museums Return Looted Art?’, The Atlantic, October 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/10/benin-bronzes-nigeria-return-stolen-art/671245/

[7] 1) Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) p14, 16.03.2021.  2) Neue Zürcher Zeitung am Sonntag, Kultur pp54-55, 25.04.2021.  3) FAZ #6 p11, 07.01.2023.  4) FAZ #50 p9, 28.02.2023

[8] 24.03.2021 Press-Statement at bottom of https://markk-hamburg.de/en/benin-dialogue/.

 

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Mike Wells