This picture shows members of the British Expeditionary Force posing with looted art from the palace of the Benin King, Nigeria.
A few of these are back now, mostly on short loans from Britain. The vast majority are still in museums on foriegn lands and in peoples private collections. One such artifact is a 16th century Benin Mask which is due to be auctioned off under controversial circumstances. The history behind the mask and other bronze Benin plaques is compelling. A petition page has been created to stop this!
The page according to the creators is an effort “to put a stop to the auction of a 16th century Benin mask stolen during the invasion of the Benin people by the British. It recently resurfaced after going missing for many years and is being put up for sale according to artdaily.org along with five other Benin objects by the “descendants of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Gallwey ( in 1913 he changed his name to Galway) who was appointed deputy commissioner and vice-consul in the newly established Oil Rivers Protectorate (later the Niger Coast Protectorate) in 1891. He remained in Nigeria until 1902 and participated in the British Government’s “Punitive Expedition” of 1897 against Benin City. The faces of the five known pendant masks have been interpreted widely by scholars of Benin art as that of Idia, the first Queen Mother of Benin. Sotheby’s plans to auction this precious mask and other Benin objects on 17 February 2011. We plan to put a stop to the sale and get the items returned to the Benin people in Nigeria”.
According to Artdaily.org ”The mask is estimated at £3.5-4.5 million. It had been on public view in 1947 as part of a loan exhibition at the Berkeley Galleries in London entitled ‘Ancient Benin’, and then again in 1951 in ‘Traditional Sculpture from the Colonies’ at the Arts Gallery of the Imperial Institute in London”.
If this campaign suceeds, what happens next is just as important. As Seyi, a commentator on this post states ” Please let 95% of the proceeds of the sale of this mask be used in a foundation or a relevant transparent body where the people of Benin will benefit- i.e. the rehabilitation of trafficked women and their families or a similar real benefit. If this is returned to the Benin people it will end up- now they know the material worth- sold on the black market anyway to a private international collector with the millions going to a few big wigs. Let us be real .Let not one theft of a hundred years ago be an excuse to proceed to another theft- even though it will be done by the sons of the soil”.
Seyi, makes an important point, however, it is imperative to STOP this auction NOW then begin to highlight the issue of stolen African artefacts and how those artefacts could be returned. As another commentator, Michael Kirkpatrick rightly puts it “I find it extremely hypocritical that the art world is discussing how to return artwork that was stolen by the Nazi’s during WWII, but they don’t see the parallels with African items stolen from the continent by “explorers” and “collectors”.
S Okwunodu Ogbechie an art historian, who has tirelessly raised the issue of Africa’s stolen artefacts states on his blog aachronym “All across the world today, many stolen artworks are being repatriated to their countries of origins. No one is asking the cultural owners of these artworks to pay for the privilege of retrieving their ancestors’ properties. Therefore, the relevant issue is whether Africans have any legal rights to their lives, natural and cultural resources”.
British Expeditionary Force – Photo Courtesy: aachronym
Click here to sign a wider petition: Looted African artefacts belong to Africans