The Queen has found herself the fortunate owner of a Benin bronze head—an astonishing gift from the Nigerian government. The magnificent sculpture of a king was presented by president General Yakubu Gowon during his State visit in 1973. Since then it has been regarded as a modern replica, and this summer it went on public view for the first time, in a special Jubilee display of State gifts in the Ball Supper Room of Buckingham Palace.
The Art Newspaper spotted the Benin head, and felt that it looked as if it might be an original. We suggested that British Museum specialist Dr Nigel Barley and Professor John Picton from the School of Oriental and African Studies should see it. Both confirmed it as authentic, with Professor Picton dating it to around 1600 or very shortly afterwards.
The next surprise was to discover that the bronze came from the National Museum in Lagos. We have established that shortly before Gowon’s State visit, he called at the museum, looked around the displays, and selected a gift. The revelation that the head of State personally presented a Benin antiquity from his country’s national museum to The Queen will considerably weaken Nigeria’s long-standing claim that bronzes in UK museums are loot which should be returned.
The bronze head would have been on an altar in the palace of the Oba of Benin for around 300 years, until the arrival of the British Punitive Expedition in 1897. Although many of the bronze plaques in the ruler’s palace were seized officially, most of the sculptures were looted by individual officers. The sculpted head now at Buckingham Palace must have gone to Britain with an officer, presumably staying in his family until eventually sold on the art market.
In 1946 Nigeria’s surveyor of antiquities Kenneth Murray, with assistance of British Museum specialist William Fagg, began to buy Benin bronzes for a planned national museum in Lagos. As we revealed, some of them, but not the head, came from the British Museum (The Art Newspaper, No.124, April 2002, pp.1,5). Nigeria was still a colony, so the money came from the Colonial Office. The museum opened in 1957, whereupon purchases ceased, and Nigeria achieved independence three years later. This means that the head now in the Royal Collection must have been bought in London between 1946 and 1957, and was in the Lagos museum when it opened.
In 1973 General Gowon was invited for a State visit to Britain. He was very anxious to bring the right gift, partly because he was grateful for British support during the Biafran civil war. General Gowon initially asked one of his regional military governors to commission a replica Benin bronze, but he was disappointed with the result. One Saturday just before his departure, he telephoned Dr Ekpo Eyo, director of the Antiquities Department and head of the National Museum, to say that he was coming round that morning to choose a gift.
Professor Picton, former curator of the National Museum in Lagos, later deputy director of the Antiquities Department under Dr Eyo and then at the British Museum, was privately told what had occurred soon after the event. Last month he explained to The Art Newspaper: “Dr Eyo hurried to the museum and managed to remove a few of the finest and unique items and put them in the store. General Gowon soon arrived, he looked around and took one of the bronzes from the display. Dr Eyo was horrified, because it was quite improper for the state to be raiding the museum. But Dr Eyo also realised that it would weaken Nigeria’s position in the debate over repatriation of the Benin bronzes.” The gift also made a mockery of Nigeria’s export regulations, since a license would never have been granted by the Antiquities Department for such an important item.
General Gowon came to Britain on his State visit from 12-15 June 1973, and the bronze was duly presented to The Queen. Some years later the head was formally transferred from The Queen’s private collection to the Royal Collection. It was then displayed on a shelf in the Royal Library at Windsor Castle, close to a number of other curios, such as a small piece of the Berlin Wall. For the past few years it has remained in store.
The display of State gifts in the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace, is until 29 September. For details, Tel: +44 (0)20 7321 2233.