Blood antiquities in respectable havens

Published on Pambazuka News, by Kwame Opoku, July 18, 2012.

The people of Benin have tried for years to have their precious works of art returned to no avail. Now the artifacts have a new ‘owner’ in America. “The year 1897 means much to me and my people; it was the year the British invaded our land and forcefully removed thousands of our bronze and ivory works from my great grandfather, Oba Ovonramwen’s Palace.” His Royal Highness Oba Erediauwa, Oba of Benin.  

The American media is full of reports that the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has recently received a large number of Benin artefacts as donation from a New York banker and collector, Robert Owen Lehman, great-grandson of founder of Lehman Brothers. [1] The gift consists of 34 excellent artworks from West Africa of which 32 are from Benin – 28 bronzes and four ivories. The other two are from Guinea and Sierra Leone. The Benin artefacts had been bought in the 1950s and 1970s. A quick look at the artefacts indicates that they are among the best of Benin artefacts and the press has praised the beauty, elegance, and sophistication of these works. [2]

The sophistication of the artefacts clearly points to their notorious origin: the nefarious invasion of Benin in 1897 by the British in their criminal enterprise, the so-called Punitive Expedition that culminated in the looting of the palace of the Benin king, Oba Ovonramwen, and the killing of innocent children, women and men before Benin City was burnt down by the invading army, as was their tradition whenever and wherever the British army was sent to punish recalcitrant colonial or semi colonial subjects. [3]

The Museum of Fine Arts itself refers to the 1897 invasion and looting as source of many of the artefacts. [4] However, through subtle means attempts are made, often indirectly, to lessen the criminal nature of the source of these magnificent artefacts. The history of the invasion of Benin is not fully stated and is, in many ways, distorted. A press release issued by the museum states: … //

… It is true that a donation to a museum of looted artefacts and an auction of looted artefact are different matters but here the fundamental objections to both situations relate to their common origin: the violent looting of 1897 by the British military force. This stain of initial violence and blood attaches to the wrongful detention of the Benin bronzes. It should be noticed that donations to museums are not always guided by pure altruism as they may appear. There are tax rebates for making such donations. The donor gains in addition an enormous amount of social prestige that can be used to maximize profits in other enterprises.

During the protests against Sotheby’s, led by an NGO, the Nigeria Liberty Forum, the Nigerian Government declared its intention to request the return of all Nigerian artefacts illegally held abroad. A body was to be set up with a mandate to implement this specific objective [15]. One could expect to hear soon official Nigerian reaction on the donation of looted Benin artefacts. Most probably, the whereabouts of the artefacts looted in 1897 are now revealed for the first time to the Nigerian authorities and the people of Benin.

Regarding the statement that there has been no claim to the donated Benin artefacts, we are surprised that this very weak argument is repeated by the museum curator. It is depressing to note that famous museums such as Louvre, British Museum, Metropolitan Museum, Chicago Institute of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, resort to desperate and miserable arguments which first year university students would not dare to present. [16]

There is no rule in Municipal Law or International Law which prevents a holder of a looted or stolen object from returning it to the rightful owner even if he has not asked for it. Normally, most owners will quickly put in a claim once they are aware of the whereabouts of the object and the identity of the holder. But how can one state there has been no claims in this case? The museum itself indicates that the Benin artefacts have not been seen for decades. Indeed, many of the looted artefacts have not been seen by the rightful owners since 1897. How can they put in a claim for the artefacts when they do not know who is holding them? Most probably, the whereabouts of the artefacts looted in 1897 are now revealed for the first time to the Nigerian authorities and the people of Benin.

This unworthy argument that the owners of looted Benin objects have not put in a claim is a remarkable tradition of Western museology. The British Museum has always maintained that there has been no request for the return of the Benin artefacts even though the Oba of Benin sent a petition to the British Parliament, printed in Parliamentary records. [17] Despite this record we still hear from some museum officials, as a variation of this argument, that there have been no formal requests. How much more formal can a request be than a petition to the British Parliament? The Nigerian Government has on several occasions requested the return of looted Nigerian artefacts. As recently as 2008, the Benin Royal Family sent a demand to museums for the return of the artefacts. (Annex ll). The museum directors have till today not even bothered to acknowledge receipt of the petition, hand carried by a member of the Royal Family to the Art. At the opening of the exhibition- Benin – Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria in Vienna, and subsequently in Berlin and Chicago, the request for the return of the artefacts was reiterated. [18]

In 1968 the great Ekpo Eyo, then Director of Museums at the Nigerian Commission on Museums and Monuments, sent a request to various Western governments to return some Benin artefacts for the opening of a new National Museum in Benin City. Not a single government responded. [19]
Several resolutions of the United Nations and UNESCO have urged holders of such artefacts to take the initiative to return these artefacts. The ICOM Code of Ethics for museums requires museums to enter into discussions with owners of foreign cultural artefacts they are holding. In view of all this, can anyone honestly and seriously state that there has been no demand for the return of the looted Benin artefacts?

The patent immorality and illegality of the violent British 1897 invasion of Benin clearly calls for acts of atonement and reconciliation from the persons and the institutions concerned. It is not enough to condemn the illicit traffic in antiquities and at the same time accept artefacts that are obviously tainted with opprobrium, objects that were acquired as a result of shedding the blood of innocent persons and the destruction of their property. It is true that many Western States and their intellectuals have adopted the position that justice and morality have no place in the question of looted artefacts, especially if this concerns African people. If the Benin people had been Europeans, the attitude of Western museum directors and art collectors would have been different. The reaction towards Nazi-looted artefacts is very eloquent in this regard. Indeed some of those holding on to the blood antiquities from Benin would be the first to support recovery of Nazi-looted artefacts. The British Government and Parliament that remain deaf to the cries of the Benin people have recently passed legislation to enable recovery of Nazi looted artefacts. [20]

The movement to secure the recognition of the fundamental iniquity of robbing others of their cultural artefacts, especially where violence has been involved, is gaining ground. Recent restitutions give us some hope that even the West will finally accept that it is wrong to steal the cultural artefacts of other nations. One cannot envisage a peaceful world that accommodates such blatant violations of the human right of others to develop their culture with their own cultural products.

Holders of looted cultural objects are clearly not responsible for the deeds of their predecessors or previous possessors. But are they not also expected to make a contribution to a better world? Or would they rather continue to contribute to historical injustices against African and other peoples? These historical violations of our human right to cultural development, has inter alia, led to the present imbalance in the distribution of classical African artefacts between the West and Africa, to the benefit of the former.

Western museums should finally do something to dispel the views held in the rest of the world that they are looters dens, holding and protecting thousands of ill-gotten cultural artefacts of other peoples. These museums could make a useful contribution to inter-cultural understanding but so long as they labour under this less than favourable reputation, they cannot, at least in the non-Western world, make full use of their potentials. (full text).

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