United Kingdom

Benin mask expected to break auction record

The antiquity could fetch a record price for an African work of art when it is sold at Sotheby's in London on 17 February

Ivory pendant mask, Edo people, Kingdom of Benin, Nigeria, est 3.5m-4.5m pounds (Photo: Sotheby's)

A Benin antiquity could fetch a record price for an African work of art, when an ivory mask is sold at Sotheby's in London on 17 February. The rediscovered 16th century masterpiece is estimated at £ 3.5m-4.5m. We predicted in September 2009 that it would come onto the market (The Art Newspaper, p49).

The ivory pendant mask depicts Idia, the Queen Mother of Oba Esigie (c.1504-50). It was acquired during the Punitive Expedition of 1897 by Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Galway, and is being sold by his family. It has only been briefly exhibited twice, in 1947 and 1951. Only four similar masks are known, now in museums in London, New York, Seattle and Stuttgart. John Picton, an African art specialist, recently described the Galway example as having “almost mythical status, as the one not yet in captivity.”

The Sotheby's sale will also include five other Benin antiquities from the Galway descendants, including an important carved tusk, three ivory and bronze armlets and a rare tusk stand.

Controversy still surrounds the looting of artworks during the Punitive Expedition, in what is now Nigeria. The British Museum's example was subject to a claim in 1977, when it was used as the symbol of the Festival of Black Arts and Culture in Lagos. This was rejected by the museum and there would now be little legal basis for a claim on the Galway mask.

The record price for an African work of art is €5.9m for a Fang mask from Gabon, sold by Enchères Rive Gauches, Paris, on 17-18 June 2006 (at that time equivalent of £4.1m).

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22 Mar 13
4:5 CET


The Benin culture is based on 13th century - 14th century SW. Nigerian imagery. It reflected the depictions of (Royal) Chiefs, Queens, and Kings. What other culture could be divinely depicted through works of Art. The Indianapolis Museum of Art featured a series of Benin Art that was well displayed and depicted African royalty. This is an (awesome) collection to see in (real) life. Words can not express the real-life imagery of an awesome culture.

16 Jan 11
19:50 CET


To Web Editor, New York: One does not have to wait for a court to validate illegality to know when something is illegal. So yes, Sotheby's is trafficking in stolen goods and the Galway family should be ashamed to have held on to property that DOES NOT belong to them for this long. The mask and all other such antiquities should be returned to the Nigerian government WITHOUT recompense. Since when something stolen that is returned should be paid for by the rightful owner? Ridiculous!

14 Jan 11
14:52 CET


I do hope these objects will be bought by a museum so they can be enjoyed and admired by the wider public. The Benin sculptures are wonderful works of art which deserve to be displayed.

4 Jan 11
15:57 CET


Since this article was posted, the mask has been withdrawn from sale at Sotheby's at the request of the consignors. The legality or otherwise of these kind of sales is a matter of dispute and has not been tested recently in court, so it is not correct to describe Sotheby's as "trafficking in stolen goods". The ethics of such cases remain hotly debated.

10 Jan 11
14:34 CET


It is heartening to see that good sense prevailed and that the intended auctioning of the Benin Mask has been canceled by Sotheby's. However it is outrageous that the Galway family, having participated in the plunder of Benin in the late 1800's should now look to profit once more from their dastardly deed. While the item should have been returned to Africa/Nigeria at the very least the Galway's could have notified the Nigerian Government that they intended to dispose of it and offered it back to them at a negotiated price.

24 Dec 10
16:21 CET


There can be no justice if this stolen Benin art work is sold. It will be illegal. The right thing to do is to return this to their rightful owners, the Oba's Palace in Benin City, Nigeria ASAP.

10 Jan 11
14:34 CET


Benin Ivory Mask: It is appalling that this treasured item is being sold by the heirs of the people who looted it from the Benin Empire of pre-colonial Nigeria and/or their accomplices with the apparent acquiescence of the British authorities and Sotheby's. What example is being set here? Shameful!!!! Tomorrow, we will see looted Iraqi antiquities being publicly auctioned off on American, British (or any of the allies) streets?

23 Dec 10
15:50 CET


This artwork does not belong to the descendants of Sir. Gallway. It belongs to the descendants of King Ovonramwen of Benin, hence to the reigning Benin King. By selling the mask, Sotheby's is trafficking in stolen goods. This is theft outright and the company should bear legal responsibility for selling a stolen artwork. See http://aachronym.blogspot.com/2010/12/sothebys-is-trafficiking-in-stolen.html

23 Dec 10
15:49 CET


Read Kwame Opoku's comment about this sale: http://www.museum-security.org/opoku_idia_mask.htm

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