The Nigerian government on Tuesday reclaimed 31 stolen Benin Bronze models from three U.S. Museums after 125 years.
The 29 Benin Bronze artifacts were returned by the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, one from the National Gallery of Art, and another from the Rhode Island School of Design Museum.
Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed and Prof. Abba Tijjani, Director General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments witnessed the transfer of the artifacts.
The representative of the Oba of Benin, his brother, Aghatise Erediauwa also witnessed the historic repatriation ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
In his remarks, Lai Mohammed said the bronze works were intrinsic to the culture that produced them and that a people ought not be denied the works of their forebears.
“It is in light of this that we are delighted with today’s repatriation of Benin Bronze,’’ he said.
The minister said the event was another testament to the success of the campaign for the return and restitution of Nigeria’s looted/smuggled artifacts from around the world, which we launched in November 2019.
“We have also received or are in the process of receiving repatriated artifacts from The Netherlands, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, Mexico, the University of Cambridge in the UK, and Germany, among others.
“Let me state clearly that Nigeria, as part of the global cultural heritage tradition, will not depart from the norms already established by practitioners in this field.
“Therefore, our museums will sustain the tradition of exchanges and collaborations with museums in the United States and other parts of the world,’’ he said.
The minister thanked the various Boards of Trustee of the three Museums for the decision to return the artifacts that were carted away from Nigeria over a century ago.
“Nigeria looks forward to working with these institutions on joint exhibitions and other educational exchanges.
“By returning the artifacts, these institutions are together writing new pages in history.
“Their brave decision to return the timeless artworks is worth emulating,” he added.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art transferred ownership of 29 Benin bronze works to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria.
The historical documents, which were part of the museum’s collection, were stolen from Nigeria during the 1897 British raid on Benin City.
The Smithsonian’s Board of Regents voted to de-accession the bronze works in June in keeping with the Smithsonian’s new ethical returns policy.
“The transfer of ownership was formalised during a ceremony at the National Museum of African Art on Oct. 11.
The ceremony was held in conjunction with the National Gallery of Art, which returned the Benin bronze works from its collection.
“Not only was returning ownership of these magnificent artifacts to their rightful home the right thing to do, it also demonstrates how we all benefit from cultural institutions making ethical choices,” Ms Lonnie Bunch, Secretary of the Smithsonian, said.
“Sharing knowledge and stewardship with origin communities will help us better understand and preserve important cultural heritage like the Benin bronze works and illuminate it for future generations in the United States and around the world,” she added.
The return of the Benin Bronzes is the first return under the Smithsonian’s new ethical returns policy announced this spring.
This policy authorises Smithsonian museums to return collections to the community of origin based on ethical considerations, such as the manner and circumstances in which the items were originally acquired.
In addition to the National Museum of African Art’s collection, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has a collection of 20 Benin bronze works.
Provenance research for that collection has been undertaken and will be submitted to the Board of Regents as a request to de-accession bronze works obtained during the 1897 expedition and return them to Nigeria.
The Kingdom of Benin is renowned for the exceptional quality and diversity of its royal arts fashioned in copper alloy, ivory, terracotta, wood, iron, and coral beads.
In 1897 during a British raid on Benin, the royal palace was torched and looted, and the oba (ruler) was exiled.
The British confiscated all royal treasures, giving some to individual officers and taking most to auction in London.
The estimated 3,000 objects eventually made their way into museums and private collections around the world.
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