The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City is repatriating two Benin Bronzes from its collection, belonging to a group of thousands of artifacts plundered by British troops from present-day Nigeria in the 1890s. The move follows similar efforts by European institutions, where the bulk of the Benin bronzes currently reside.
The works to be returned are “Warrior Chief” and “Junior Court Official,” a pair of 16th-century brass plaques that originally adorned the Royal Palace in Benin City, the capital of the West African Kingdom of Benin. In addition to claiming countless lives, the British military pillaged and destroyed monuments, sculptures, and architectural landmarks. The brass plaques came from a trove of around 900 looted from the Royal Palace.
The pieces were first housed in the British Museum and subsequently transferred to the National Museum in Lagos. Though they were never deaccessioned, the plaques entered the international art market under uncertain circumstances after the 1950s, and were eventually acquired by a New York collector who donated them to the Met in 1991.
In collaboration with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), the Met conducted research into the works and determined that they should be repatriated. They will be handed to NCMM’s Director General, Professor Abba Isa Tijani, when he is able to travel to New York.
The museum is also helping to broker the return of a third object, a 14th-century brass “Ife Head” from the Wunmonije Compound in Nigeria. The work is not part of the Met’s collection, but the museum had been offered the sculpture for purchase. Further investigation revealed that legal title to the work had not been granted by the NCMM.
“The retention of these works within Nigeria’s National Collections is critical to the well-being of the museum community and to fostering ongoing cooperation and dialogue between The Met and our Nigerian counterparts,” said director Max Hollein in a statement. He also stated the Met’s support for the forthcoming Edo Museum of West African Art, set to be built on the ruins of the razed Benin City.
While some have lauded the NYC institution for its efforts, others think the return of the two objects fails to address the hundreds of other priceless works from Benin that remain in the Met’s inventory.
“The Metropolitan is repatriating two artifacts stolen from Nigeria in the 20th century, but not the many other artifacts stolen from that territory in the 19th century in its collections,” said Erin L. Thompson, a professor of art crime at John Jay College and Hyperallergic contributor. She cites the Rattle Staff: Oba Akenzua I Standing on an Elephant, an example of an ukhurhe usually placed on ancestral altars in Benin whose provenance states that it was “taken by British Punitive Expedition.”
“These artifacts — key parts of the sacred and political workings of the Kingdom of Benin — were taken during an orgy of violence intended to steal not just the kingdom’s treasures, but the kingdom itself,” Thompson added. “How can the museum boast of doing the right thing when it continues to display so proudly the fruits of such cruelty?”