The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York has finalised the transfer of three Benin works to the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). The restitution, which was announced in June this year, follows a recent movement by international museums and universities to repatriate looted Benin treasures.
Two of the works—16th-century brass plaques depicting a warrior chief and a junior court official—were looted from the Nigerian royal palace in 1897 during the British military occupation of Benin. The artefacts were held by the British Museum from 1898 to 1950 and were repatriated to the National Museum in Lagos in 1951. The works were not deaccessioned but were removed from the museum and entered the market at an unknown date. They were eventually acquired by the art dealer Klaus Perls, who donated the plaques (along with more than 150 African objects from his collection) to the Met in 1991
The third work is a striking 14th-century Ife head that was offered to the Met for purchase by an unidentified collector who did not have legal title to the work. The sculpture is one of several Yoruban carved portraits discovered in 1938 during a construction project near the royal palace in Ife. While most of the pieces were handed over to the National Museum of Ife, several were smuggled out of the country.
Max Hollein, the Met’s director, and Abba Isa Tijani, NCMM’s director general, additionally signed a memorandum of understanding during an event held at the museum today that formalised a commitment to future collaborations, from loans to initiatives like the Digital Benin project, an online archive of items originating from the Kingdom of Benin.
Hollein says the museum is “pleased to have initiated the return of these works and remain committed to transparency and the responsible collecting of cultural property”. Isa Tijani added that the “issue of repatriation is now at the heart of the people”, and expressed that “if other museums can do what the Met did, that will give confidence to our audiences and visitors”.