Professor Ekpo Eyo is calling on Buckingham Palace to return the Benin bronze head which was taken from the Lagos National Museum and presented to The Queen during General Yakubu Gowon’s State visit to London in 1973. The former museum director, now teaching at the University of Maryland, points out that Nigeria and Britain have good relations, but a positive move to strengthen them would be “to return the gift.” The Benin bronze went on public display for the first time this summer, at Buckingham Palace. Although initially assumed to be a modern replica, following our inquiries it was authenticated as a rare original, dating from shortly after 1600 (The Art Newspaper, September 2002, no.128, p.3).
Professor Eyo has now told us the full story of how the Nigerian president took one of the National Museum’s masterpieces. General Gowon personally telephoned him at home late one night in the spring of 1973, and asked him to bring a bronze head of a king to his presidential office in the Lagos army barracks. The museum director was horrified at having to relinquish a rare item from the collection, and without being asked, he decided to risk presidential ire by also taking an alternative, a Yoruba mask. “The mask was very important, but we had quite a number of them,” Professor Eyo told The Art Newspaper last month.
At the barracks the following morning, Professor Eyo explained that the Benin bronze head had been looted by British troops in 1897 and taken to the UK, where it had subsequently been purchased shortly before independence for the fledgling National Museum in Lagos. General Gowon turned down the Yoruba mask and took the Benin head. “The general was not an art historian and did not appreciate the weight of my argument. General Gowon wanted to give something very valuable to The Queen and the fact it had been bought for our museum made it seem even more important. He gave the gift out of love for The Queen, but it was done out of ignorance,” Professor Eyo told us.
Following Gowon’s State visit to London, Professor Eyo wrote to William Fagg, Keeper of Ethnography at the British Museum, a Benin specialist and advisor to the Lagos museum in the 1950s. Last month Professor Eyo explained: “I assumed that after the Benin head was received by The Queen, Mr Fagg would be called in to evaluate it and that it might well be offered on loan to the British Museum. I asked him to try to persuade The Queen to send it back.” Mr Fagg responded that he had not been contacted by Buckingham Palace and there the matter rested.
The Benin head went off show when the display of state gifts closed at Buckingham Palace last month and the Royal Collection is now considering whether to put it on regular display or lend it to the British Museum.