The Denver Art Museum has removed a stolen Benin bronze from its collection
Victor Ehikhamenor describes his childhood in Benin City, Nigeria as magical. “My grandfather was a great chef, so we grew up in a very, very large family compound,” he says. âGrandmothers told stories. Many of them have paintings on their walls. It recalls the many feasts, the coral beads traditionally worn by the Obas and Beninese chiefs, and the way in which indigenous art and Catholic imagery, first brought to Nigeria by Portuguese adventurers in the 15th century, were mingle in the churches that still exist today.
And, of course, Ehikhamenor, a multimedia artist, a photographer and writer who moved to the United States in 1996, remembers the bronzes. A visitor to Benin City could easily find many contemporary examples of sculpture, made by pouring molten bronze or brass into a mould. Artists create and sell them on Igun Street, home to Nigeria’s Royal Guild of the Brass Casters, and Ehikhamenor says it’s not uncommon to find a bronze in someone’s home in Benin. âIt’s a living culture,â he says. “It never stopped and it never will.”
Yet many Igun Street artists have never seen some of the most exquisite versions of their art, which have been made since at least the 16th century. In 1897, British soldiers looted the royal palace in what was then called the Kingdom of Benin, taking several thousand metal plates, sculptures and other precious works. Pieces have since been scattered around the world, bought and sold by both private collectors and public museums, including a plaque depicting a nobleman held at the Denver Art Museum (DAM) since 1955.
Now, however, DAM has taken the first step toward repatriating (the word researchers use when cultural objects are returned to their country of origin or former owners) the plaque by alienating or formally removing it from his collection.
The Denver Post first reported in November that the DAM had started research the provenance of 11 works in his collection from the Kingdom of Benin. According to a statement emailed by the DAM to 5280, only two of the 11 works would have been in Benin during the 1897 raid (the other nine are from 1910 to 1950). One is the plaque, which the museum has confirmed was looted by examining records held at the British Museum. The other is âa small bronze belt pendant or maskâ, the origin of which is still being investigated by the DAM.
The repatriation of bronze represents an important advance in the ethics of museum collections. For years, Western museum curators have felt justified in holding works of art and other cultural artifacts that were stolen from their home countries. The United States government became involved in 1990 when it passed the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, a law that created a system under which tribes could demand that federally funded museums return objects of cultural significance, including the remains of their ancestors. But this legislation only applied to indigenous tribes in the United States, meaning members of other nations who had items stolen had to rely on museum staff to return them.
In the case of the Benin bronzes, the institutions only very recently decided to repatriate. France returned 26 bronze medals in November 2021 and March 2022, the Smithsonian agreed to return most of its 39 coins to Nigeria. At least 16 total U.S. museums are currently undertaking the process, according to a recent survey conducted by the Washington Post.
Museums that choose to keep suspect pieces allow the market for stolen art to continue to thrive. “The art market is fueled by the desires of collectors, whose desire is born by seeing these objects in Western museums,” says Erin Thompson, professor of art crime at John Jay College, part of the City University of New York. “It’s a cycle of desire and plunder.”
Holding stolen works of art like the Benin Bronzes reinforces feelings of Western supremacy over colonized nations, says Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archeology at the University of Oxford and curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum, which exhibits the vast archaeological and anthropological collections of the university. Hicks’ book, Brutal museums: Benin bronzes, colonial violence and cultural restitution, was the first to include excerpts from the British soldiers who led the attack on the Kingdom of Benin. âThe work of plunder was a military tactic, to seek to claim sovereignty, to seek to destroy traditional religion, to seek to undertake lasting cultural dispossession,â Hicks says.
Just weeks after the invasion of Benin, museums in London, Berlin and Oxford put the stolen bronzes on display, often alongside works from Ancient Egypt, the Bronze Age and the ancient Near East ( civilizations located roughly in the same region as the present-day Middle East). ). âThe message was absolutely clear: This is a dead culture,â Hicks says.
As Ehikhamenor’s recollections indicate, neither Beninese culture nor the practice of bronze casting died. Contemporary bronzes from Benin, however, have been impacted by the loss of artwork from the royal palace, as modern artists from Nigeria have been unable to interact with the masterpieces of their ancestors. “If a Western artist goes to a museum and sees a Caravaggio, he’ll probably come back and say, ‘OK, I want to paint like that’ or ‘I don’t want to paint like that’ or ‘I want to paint like that but break a few rules,â says Ehikhamenor, who wrote about the frustration of seeing pieces of his own culture behind glass outside Nigeria in a grandstand 2020 in the New York Times. âThere are a lot of things that came from that time that if they were among us we would be able to reference them.â
Repatriation can take a long time. Last year the DAM returned a tablet It is believed to have been stolen from Nepal, but the coin is still at the Nepalese embassy because the small country southwest of China cannot afford to ship it, Thompson said. DAM has not offered a timeline for the plate’s official return.
Still, scholars like Hicks say DAM’s decision to remove the bronze plaque is a good step. âWhat that opens up,â he says, âare the other conversations we can have in the museum. Instead of a hangover from the colonial period, we can create spaces that share a whole host of different ways of doing, seeing, believing, and thinking outside of the Euro-American or Eurocentric perspective.
(Read more: The history of museums is busier than you think)