The first comprehensive exhibition of Benin bronzes has opened at Vienna’s Museum für Völkerkunde, and it will tour to Paris, Berlin and Chicago. Diplomatically, “Benin: Kings and Rituals” has been a highly sensitive project for the four museums hosting the show, because of restitution claims from Nigeria.
In 2000 Prince Edun Akenzua, brother of the King (Oba) of Benin, told a UK Parliamentary inquiry that bronzes and ivories “illegally taken away by the British in 1897 should be returned”, or financial compensation paid.
The breakthrough for the Vienna exhibition came a year ago, when museum director general Dr Wilfried Seipel and curator Dr Barbara Plankensteiner travelled to Benin City, for discussions with 83-year-old Oba Erediauwa, who gave his blessing for the show.
Benin, one of the major kingdoms of pre-colonial West Africa, lies in southern Nigeria (it should not be confused with the present Republic of Benin, formerly Dahomey, which lies to the west of Nigeria).
Benin bronzes are now regarded as among the highest accomplishments of African art. They were virtually unknown in Europe until 1897, when the UK mounted the Punitive Expedition, following the killing of seven Britons who had entered the country without authority. The British military mission of 1,200 troops which overthrew the Oba is now regarded as a heavy-handed exercise in colonial domination.
When British troops entered the Oba’s palace, they discovered around 4,000 bronzes and ivories dating from the 15th century onwards. This represented nearly the entire production of these royal artefacts. Some were taken by individual British officers, but most were seized by the government and shipped to London, where they were sold shortly after their arrival.
Although the British Museum wanted to acquire the greatest pieces, it was thwarted by a shortage of funds, and the largest number were bought by the Berlin ethnographic museum. The Vienna Museum für Völkerkunde also acquired a large group, as well as museums in Hamburg, Dresden, Cologne and Stockholm. Other bronzes which had been in private hands later came onto the market (for instance, in 2002 the National Museums of Scotland acquired a bronze figure of a Portuguese soldier from an owner who had used it as a doorstop).
In America, Pennsylvania University’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology bought major pieces in the early 20th century. In 1961, the Field Museum in Chicago received a donation from Captain A.W. Fuller, giving it the finest Benin collection in the US. In the 1960s and 70s other American museums made acquisitions, particularly New York’s Metropolitan Museum. Nigeria also managed to buy back a few bronzes which appeared on the international market.
Last month, the Vienna museum succeeded in assembling 300 works, almost 10% of the original collection, coming from the major owners. Negotiations were complicated because of concerns over possible restitution claims from Benin, although these were eased when it emerged that the Nigerian authorities were proving conciliatory.
In the catalogue, Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments director-general, Dr Joseph Eboreime, emphasises that Benin’s treasures were “forcibly removed” in 1897, but he makes no claim for them to be returned. The National Commission is lending to Vienna, including an important pair of bronze leopards which had been bought from a Parisian dealer in 1952.
In a separate foreword by the Oba, Erediauwa describes the removal of bronzes and ivories from his great grandfather’s palace as “looting”. But instead of concluding with a claim, he ends with a dignified request: “It is our prayer that the people and the government of Austria will show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.” The Oba is also lending to Vienna, although only 20th-century bronzes. Nevertheless, these objects have symbolic importance, since it is the first time that he has lent to an international exhibition.
The Berlin ethnographic museum is the major lender to Vienna, providing 80 pieces. These include many items which were considered lost for 45 years (over 400 Benin antiquities were seized by Soviet troops in Berlin in 1945, and were discovered hidden in store at Leipzig’s Museum für Völkerkunde following German reunification in 1990). The British Museum is lending 40 items, after trustees were given “immunity from seizure” guarantees.
The catalogue warns of the problem of forgeries, an issue which has received little public attention. Dr Plankensteiner writes of the “extensive production” of pieces which are sold on the market as antique. She calls for efforts “to conclusively expose the numerous copies that are being sold as antiquities”.
Meanwhile, prices of the originals continue to escalate. Investigations by The Art Newspaper have revealed that in the 1950s the British Museum sold “duplicate” bronze plaques for around £100 each (April 2002, pp1, 5).
Last month the Minneapolis Institute of Arts bought a bronze head of an Oba for an undisclosed sum, known to be over $1m. A similar piece deaccessioned by Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery sold at Sotheby’s, New York on 17 May for $4.7m, well above the estimated $1m-$1.5m. This is the second highest sum ever paid at auction for an African work of art: the buyer was Paris dealer Galerie Bernard Dulon.
“Benin: Kings and Rituals” is in Vienna until 3 September, then at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris (2 October-6 January 2008), the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin (7 February-25 May 2008) and the Art Institute of Chicago (27 June-21 September 2008).
Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Benin bronzes finally united'