Museums USA

Boston museum returns works to Nigeria

Some of the works, acquired in good faith by donor in the 1990s, were accompanied by forged documentation

This Benin brass altar figure from Nigeria was accompanied by a bill of sale from the chief of the guild of Benin City's brasscasters, or Igun Eronmwon, but inconsistencies have cast doubts on the document's authenticity

Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts has returned eight sculptures to Nigeria. They had been acquired by a donor who had bought them from American and European dealers in the 1990s. Earlier this month, the group was restituted to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

The sculptures were given or bequeathed by William Teel, a Massachusetts donor who died in December 2012. He left 300 African and Oceanic items, in addition to some given during his lifetime. Early last year the Boston museum took the initiative to begin a detailed provenance check on his collection.

Teel had bought the eight restituted pieces in good faith, five of which he acquired from the Davis Gallery in New Orleans. The two oldest are Nok terracottas, around 500BC to AD200, which came from the Davis Gallery and the Brussels dealer Marc Leo Felix. An Ife terracotta head dates from the 12th to 14th century. A Benin bronze ancestral altar figure, a fairly modern piece dating from 1914, was found to have been stolen from the royal palace in Benin City in 1976. An Oron ancestral figure, 18th or 19th century, was discovered to have gone missing from the Oron Museum, near Calabar, at some point from the 1970s. Four of the pieces were accompanied by forged Nigerian documentation.

Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments has not yet announced where they will go on display. Thirty-three of Teel’s other African pieces, which the museum believes do not have provenance issues, are currently on display in the Boston museum.

In a separate acquisition two years ago, the museum received a donation of 34 West African artefacts from Robert Owen Lehman, nearly all of them Benin bronzes. At the time, the Nigerian commission demanded their return, although this claim does not appear to have been pursued.

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