Is very rare Benin ivory mask for sale?

Last of rare Benin ivories in private hands is expected to go on the market


Sotheby’s is expected to sell a very rare Benin mask, which could well set a record price for an African work of art. The ivory mask dates from around 1500, and is one of a small group of similar pieces which were looted by British troops in west Africa in 1897.

The Sotheby’s example is thought to have been acquired by Sir Henry Gallwey, a leader of the Benin Punitive Expedition. African art specialist Professor John Picton describes the mask, which has never been publicly exhibited, as having “almost mythical status, as the one not yet in captivity”. The other examples are all in museums.

The Benin treasure may be put into Sotheby’s African and Oceanic sale in Paris in early December. So far it has not been formally consigned, but works will be accepted until early October.

The Benin ivory masks attracted international attention in 1977, when the example at the British Museum (BM) was chosen as the symbol of the Festival of Black Arts and Culture in Lagos. A Nigerian government request to return the BM mask was submitted, but the museum responded that it was unable to de-accession and the item was too fragile to lend.

The curators of an important exhibition on Benin that toured to Vienna, Paris, Berlin and Chicago in 2007-08 also tried to borrow one of the masks, but this proved difficult. Its catalogue described the BM example as “one of the most reproduced African artworks and a powerful icon for African culture and history”.

In 1892 Sir Henry Gallwey, vice-consul of the Niger Coast Protectorate, had gone to Benin City, hoping to annex it as a British colony. Oba (king) Ovonramwen resisted his attempts. When a group of British soldiers were killed by the Oba’s troops in January 1897, a punitive expedition was dispatched by the UK Admiralty, which looted and destroyed the Benin capital. A treasure trove of magnificent sculptures was seized, most of which were in bronze, but a few were in ivory. Ovonramwen surrendered and was exiled.

The masks were found in a wooden chest in Ovonramwen’s bedroom. They are believed to depict queen mother Idia, mother of Isigie, who became Oba in 1504. The masks held an important ritual function for nearly four centuries, and would be worn around the waist of the Oba as part of his regalia (they are therefore costume masks, and were not worn on the face).

Five such masks are known. The two most important examples are in the BM (bought in 1910; illustrated left) and New York’s Metropolitan Museum (donated by Nelson Rockefeller in 1972). Two others, which are slightly smaller, are at the Seattle Art Museum (donated in 1981) and the Linden Museum in Stuttgart (bought in 1964). There is the mask being handled by Sotheby’s, the Gallwey example, which is believed to have remained in the family. There are unconfirmed reports of another in a private collection.

Although there has been strong pressure to return Benin works of art to Nigeria, there would be little legal basis for a claim on the Gallwey mask. The Nigerians stress that the Benin treasures were “forcibly removed” in 1897, but there has been no demand for restitution by the federal government in recent years. The present Oba, Erediauwa, has made requests for the return of treasures, but has also refrained from making a legal claim.

The mask acquired by Rockefeller in 1958 was privately offered for sale immediately beforehand to the Nigerian government, two years before the country attained independence. The price was £20,000, which was deemed to be much too expensive.

It is very difficult to value the mask being handled by Sotheby’s, but it would rival the highest price for a piece of Benin art ($4.7m paid at Sotheby’s, New York, on 17 May 2007, for a bronze head of an Oba de-accessioned from the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo). The Gallwey ivory might well exceed the record for an African work of art (€5.9m for a Fang mask from Gabon, sold by Enchères Rive Gauche, Paris, on 17-18 June 2006). Sotheby’s is unwilling to discuss the matter, saying that it “never comments on items that have not been consigned for sale”.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Is “mythical” mask for sale?'