Will Scottish university's return of bronze bust to Benin start a trend?

Mr Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen, with a bronze sculpture depicting a king of Benin acquired at auction by the Scottish university in 1957.
Mr Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections at the University of Aberdeen, with a bronze sculpture depicting a king of Benin acquired at auction by the Scottish university in 1957. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

It is just a small step, but the University of Aberdeen in north Scotland has just announced that a bronze bust held in its museum will be returned to Nigeria, from where it was looted by British soldiers more than a century ago.

Professor George Boyne, who heads the Scottish educational establishment, said that keeping the bust - which the university obtained legally during the 1950s - would have been wrong because it was "acquired in such reprehensible circumstances".

On its own, Aberdeen's gesture makes little difference. During the colonial expedition which captured the bust that the Scottish university is now returning, thousands of other art pieces were also seized by British troops.

Still, the return of one bronze may be the start of a more substantial trend of returning looted works of art to Africa, with huge implications on the restitution of stolen art from other countries.

The colonial story is a sadly familiar one. In 1897, the British invaded the Kingdom of Benin in what is now modern-day Nigeria.

Expedition commander Harry Rawson won praise at home for his perfectly executed military operation; the fact that it resulted in the destruction of Benin city, home to one of Africa's most developed civilisations, troubled nobody.

The British exiled Benin's king, set fire to the city and looted thousands of art objects, including an estimated 4,000 bronze art pieces.

Many of the looted works were exhibited in the British Museum in London the year after the expedition. And they caused a sensation because, contrary to the condescending and racist views of that time, which dismissed Africans as people devoid of culture, the bronzes - usually of kings, princes, and warriors - were exquisitely crafted and proof of an old and sophisticated African civilisation.

That did not prompt the scholars of the time to revise their derogatory views of Africa; instead, they simply claimed to be "baffled" by the Benin "discovery", as though this were the work of some unidentified extra-terrestrials.

Still, Benin's bronzes remained sought-after items among art dealers and collectors. And, paradoxically, the post-colonial age only increased the trade in these masterpieces.

Many Benin bronzes remained with British colonial families who continued living in Nigeria and only returned to Britain when Nigeria became independent in the 1960s, thereby further fuelling the art trade.

And Western museums rushed to acquire and display such bronzes precisely to compensate for the old and discredited colonial history which downplayed African cultural achievements.

Nigeria has long sought to retrieve such items, but met with the familiar obstacles facing all countries seeking historic restitution. Many of the pieces were bought in good faith by collectors through what are seen in the West as legal transactions. Owners have bequeathed in their wills works to museums, often on condition that they remain on display.

There were also questions over whether Nigeria can claim to be the heir of the Benin kingdom, as well as whether the country has the necessary facilities to preserve, safeguard and display the works of art.

And in what must surely rank as one of the most bizarre historic twists, when a few years back an important Benin bronze bust appeared on the British market and fetched a world record £10 million (S$18.6 million), the seller turned out to be a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust.

The Nigerian government's restitution campaign seems to have benefited from the soul-searching undertaken by many Western academic institutions in the wake of the Black Lives Matters campaign.

Germany, which has the second-largest collection of Benin artwork, is negotiating the return of the 440 bronzes held at its Ethnological Museum, with German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas claiming that art repatriation is "a matter of justice", and part of an "honest engagement with colonial history".

But the British Museum, which has the world's largest collection of Benin bronzes, is refusing to budge.

It has publicly acknowledged that its collection is derived from "devastation and plunder". Yet it defends its determination to hold on to the collection by claiming that their continued display will "allow millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time - whether through trade, migration, conquest or peaceful exchange".

Museum curators are evidently worried that a concession to Nigeria could open the floodgates to restitution claims by many other countries.

Still, other museums in Britain holding Benin bronzes may break ranks with the British Museum.

And a book authored by Mr Barnaby Phillips, the Nigeria correspondent of the BBC, Britain's state-funded broadcaster, has just been published in London retelling the full story of Benin's destruction.

It is poignantly titled Loot.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 05, 2021, with the headline Will Scottish university's return of bronze bust to Benin start a trend?. Subscribe