The Met Repatriates Looted Benin and Ife Works
November 24, 2021
New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has officially restituted three objects in its collection to Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). The Met had promised to return the objects this past June, and did so in a ceremony in New York on Monday, where the museum also signed an agreement promising to collaborate with the Nigerian government on future scholarship and loans of other artwork. Under this arrangement, the Met will lend some of its holdings to several Nigerian museums, including the planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City. In exchange, the NCMM will loan works to the Met in 2024 for the unveiling of its renovated Michael C. Rockefeller Wing dedicated to African, ancient American, and Oceanic art.
Two of the works that were returned are sixteenth-century brass plaques from the court of Benin. They depict a junior court official and a warrior chief, respectively, and number among the so-called Benin Bronzes—a group of over a thousand brass and bronze objects of ceremonial value plundered from the royal palace in 1897 during Britain’s invasion and occupation of the Kingdom of Benin in present-day Nigeria. The plaques entered the collection of the British Museum in London, and were later transferred to the National Museum in Lagos. How and when they came to enter the international art market is unknown, as they were never deaccessioned by that institution. Eventually they were acquired by art dealer Klaus Perls and donated, in his gift of more than 153 African objects, to the Met in 1991. The museum is thought to hold 160 Benin Bronzes in its collection, Artnews reports; whether it plans to return any more of these objects remains to be seen.
The third repatriated work is a brass head, made around the fourteenth century near the Yoruba city of Ife, also in present-day Nigeria. The carved portrait, which has never been displayed publicly at the Met, was uncovered in 1938 during construction near the city’s royal palace and likely smuggled out of the country thereafter. An anonymous collector, who lacked legal title to the work, offered to sell it to the Met, which—after a five-year deliberation period—resolved to restore it to Nigeria.
“The Met is pleased to have initiated the return of these works and is committed to transparency and the responsible collecting of cultural property,” the museum’s director Max Hollein said at Monday’s event. His is among the institutions in Europe and the United States that have begun to move in response to Nigeria’s repatriation efforts. Just weeks ago, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. announced it was considering returning sixteen works stolen during the Benin Expedition of 1897. Last month, German officials signed a pledge to restitute more than 1,000 Benin Bronzes, effective next spring. At the ceremony, Nigerian minister of information and culture Alhaji Lai Mohammed expressed hopes that other museums “take a cue” from the Met’s return, noting that “the art world can be a better place if every possessor of cultural artifacts considers the rights and feelings of the dispossessed.”