Nigeria, U.S. gallery row over stolen 1897 Benin artefacts
THE donation of 32 works of Benin Art - 28 Bronze and six Ivories - looted during the Benin Massacre of 1897 by one of the heirs of the beneficiary of the expedition, Mr. Robert Owen Lehman, to the Museum of Fine Art Boston U.S.A, may have sparked up diplomatic row between Nigeria and the United States of America (USA).
The donor, Owen Lehman, has been traced to have ancestral link to the famous American banker and collector, late Philip Lehman, who was reported to have founded the defunct investment firm, Lehman Bros, that was renowned for “buying West African artworks at auctions in the 1950s and has since amassed a prized group of bronze figures from Benin, as well as several ivory objects from 15th Century Sierra Leone.”
Already, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has renewed call for the restitution of these priceless stolen artefacts as the donation continues to generate criticism in the global art scene.
“For the avoidance of doubt, we hereby place it on record that we demand, as we have always done, the return of these looted works and all stolen, removed or looted artifacts from Nigeria under whatever guise,” Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman stated, while calling on the management of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, U.S. “to, as a matter of self-respect, return the 32 works to Nigeria, the rightful owners forthwith.”
Reacting to the Boston deal, which filtered into the public domain through the Internet during the week, NCMM head said, “we have read with trepidation the donation of 32 works of Benin Art precisely 28 Bronze and six Ivories looted during the Benin Massacre of 1897 by one of the heirs of the beneficiary of the expedition, Mr. Robert Owen Lehman, to the Museum of Fine Art Boston U.S.A.”
The collections, which, according to Usman, form part of the exploits of the British Expedition, “were taken out illegally on the pretext of spoils of war,” he decried, adding, “Without mincing words, these artworks are heirloom of the great people of the Benin Kingdom and Nigeria generally. They form part of the history of the people. The gap created by this senseless exploitation is causing our people untold anguish, discomfort and disillusionment.”
To the Nigeria’s museum chief, what is most annoying is the claim by the management of the Boston Gallery that “the donation met all legal standards.”
Its Senior Curator of African and Oceanic Art, Christraud Geary, was quoted to have said: “We have looked at the legal situation here at the museum and we’ve come to the conclusion that the gift meets all of our standards.”
But Usman queries, “One wonders what they mean by this? Are they working out of the UNESCO Conventions and other standard setting instruments?”
Justifying their position further, Geary reportedly said there was no official claims for the works, and this was corroborated by the Boston Museum Director, Malcolm Rogers noting, “What entered my thinking was that here was a wonderful opportunity to move into the public domain objects which hadn’t been seen for decades and which spoke so wonderfully of the great African culture.”
Usman, therefore, declares: “We are vehemently opposed to this stance by the management of the Museum of Fine Art. Objects taken illegally should be returned to their rightful owners and in this case, the people of Nigeria. No one can give objective and true history of their patrimony however much they tried than the true owners.
“If these art works adjudged to be great, are so wonderful to move into the public domain of the United States, would it not be more appropriate if they are first returned to their home where they will be meaningful and happy to thrive helping to define reality for the people, explaining the past and shaping the future.”
With the gifts, it is gathered that the management of the Boston Museum is planning to stage an exhibition in 2013.
Interestingly, the Boston Museum deal is coming almost two years after Sotheby’s Gallery in London was forced to cancel proposed sales of some 15th Century looted art pieces of Benin origin.
In December 2010, Sotheby was forced to cancel the proposed London sales of six Benin artefacts, including an ivory-made pendant mask of Queen Idia, after an outcry and protests over the questionable acquisition of the works.
Works in the Sotheby’s cancelled sales were reportedly from the descendants of Lionel Galway, an army officer whose efforts led to the looting of the Benin Kingdom in 1897. Late Colonel (Sir) Lionel Henry Gallway (he later changed his surname to Galway) was the Deputy Commissioner and Vice-consul in the then newly created Oil Rivers Protectorate.
In recent past, the continued keeping of artefacts of Nigerian origin in notable galleries in Europe and America has become a serious issue of public debate in art circles in Africa.
In 2007, the Centre for Black and African Art and Civilisation (CBAAC) exchanged correspondences with the British Museum with a view to getting original Queen Idia Mask, repatriated to mark the 30th anniversary of the Second World Black Festival of Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in 77.
“The Director of British Museum, Neil Mac Grepor, wrote back to say that the issue of whether Idia Mask should be repatriated should not necessarily be the concern of the two countries now. That what should be paramount is the relationship that the British Museum has been trying to establish with National Museum in Nigeria in the areas of capacity building, sharing of experience and so on,” DG of CBAAC, Prof. Tunde Babawale, told The Guardian yesterday.
According to Babawale, Mac Gregor was evasive, “he did not answer our request, he merely reiterated the fact that the British Museum and National Museum have been doing some collaborative things together,” so, the CBAAC efforts then yielded no result.
But for Nigeria to realise the desire to get these stolen artefacts repatriated, former Director of NCMM, Mr. Mayo Adediran asserts, “the Commission (NCMM) and the Ministry of Culture and Tourism have to intensify the campaign. We have not made any claim since Ekpo Eyo era. The claim has to be made by the Minister of Culture on behalf of the President, or a resolution by the National Assembly, which should be presented through foreign embassies in Nigeria.
“Also, Nigeria needs to sign cultural bilateral agreement with many of Western countries that are holding these artefacts. NCMM also needs to collaborate with many of the foreign museums, and through good relationship and partnership, the hearts of many or some of these museums can be touched to want to return these treasures to the owners,” the museum expert reasons.
Adediran debunked the argument by most of the custodians of the looted artefacts that the lack of modern laboratory facilities in most African countries to keep these treasures discourage their willingness to want to return them.
“The claim is not genuine. They steal objects everywhere, only that Nigeria’s case is critical and all efforts to get them repatriated have not been successful. It has to do with leadership and unfortunately, we have not been blessed with the kind of leadership that can drive this process to a logical conclusion,” he laments.