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The Met ought to have returned two stolen Benin Bronzes years ago

17 June 2021

On 9 June, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York made an important announcement. It had decided to hand over two 16th-century Benin Bronze plaques to the Nigerian authorities because, in its words, it had recently discovered these were ‘never deaccessioned’ by the Nigerian National Museum in Lagos. In other words, they left Nigeria illegally – two among several Bronzes that were stolen from the National Museum after Nigerian independence in 1960. The plaques had been donated to the Met in 1991, part of a collection from Klaus and Amelia Perls. (There’s no suggestion the Perls knew any part of their collection had been taken from a Nigerian museum). The Met also announced it would assist in the return of a 14th century Ife head, which it says it ‘had been offered for sale’; this too left Nigeria illegally. The Director-General of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abba Isa Tijani, told me he welcomed the news that three significant pieces were coming back to West Africa.

Plaque depicting a warrior chief (17th century), Benin

Plaque depicting a warrior chief (16th century), Benin – one of two to be returned to Nigeria by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

I read the Met’s announcement with excitement and a twinge of vindication. In 2020 I received reliable information that two Benin Bronze plaques in the Met had been stolen from the National Museum in Lagos. I was finishing a book on the history of the Benin Bronzes, and contacted the Met several times, seeking confirmation or denial. I received no reply, and could not find another source to corroborate the information. I deliberated over whether to name the Met in my book, but in the end wrote instead that there were two stolen plaques in ‘a prominent American museum’. Following the 9 June announcement, when the Met learnt I would be writing this article, it suddenly broke its silence. A Met spokesman said it ‘was greatly appreciative’ of the role I had played, and that ‘the new information’ I provided ‘precipitated an extensive provenance review, which led to this action.’

The real significance of this case, however, is what it reveals about the pressure Western museums are feeling because of Benin Bronzes in their collections. These treasures – metal castings and ivory carvings – were looted from the West African kingdom of Benin (in modern-day Nigeria) by the British in 1897. In recent years, they’ve become emblematic of the highly charged debate around colonial-looted art. In Germany, the government and federal museums have announced their decision to return ‘substantial’ numbers of Bronzes, starting in 2022. Some institutions in Britain – among them the University of Aberdeen and the Horniman Museum in London – have made similar announcements. But even museums which are resistant to the idea of permanent returns of Benin Bronzes want to be seen to be helpful. These include the British Museum, which has almost 1,000 Bronzes and has agreed in principle to lend some back to Nigeria, and the Met, which has some 180 Bronzes, the vast majority of which came from the Perls in 1991.

The Met must have known for years that there might have been grounds for concern about the Perl collection. The Royal Art of Benin, a Met publication from 1992, noted that a Perl plaque had once been in the British Museum. In 2005, the Art Newspaper revealed that the British Museum had sold, exchanged, or donated 38 of its Benin plaques between 1950 and 1972. Most of these went to the nascent Nigerian museum service in 1950 and 1951. Privately, the Met has told donors and supporters that the two plaques that are now to be returned left Nigeria ‘at some point after the 1960s’. (I’ve learnt of a third plaque that was also stolen from Nigeria, which a Virginia auction house tried to sell in 2016, with a pre-sale estimate of up to $1.2 million. The Nigerian embassy in Washington prevented the sale.) Still, it seems that only in the past year did the alarm bells at the Met ring sufficiently loudly for anyone to launch an investigation, and contact counterparts at the British Museum and in Nigeria.

17th-century plaque depicting a junior court official in the Kingdom of Benin – one of two to be returned to Nigeria by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Plaque depicting a junior court official in the Kingdom of Benin, 16th century

In private correspondence sent to friends of the museum, the Met has said that the plaques were never reported as missing by the Nigerian authorities, and ‘thus not on the radar of those who undertook the incoming provenance research’. This is a frail defence. As Met curators must surely know, several notorious thefts from Nigerian museums have been inside jobs, in which those responsible cover their traces. Ekpo Eyo, the famous director of museums in the 1970s and ’80s, often warned that some of his own staff could not be trusted. These museums struggle to say how many Benin Bronzes they have in their collection today, let alone which ones were stolen decades ago.

The Met says it would be pleased to be a partner with the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), a prospective new Nigerian museum which may one day host any returning Benin Bronzes. But in returning these specific plaques, they’re making an unacknowledged distinction between them and the rest of their Benin Bronzes. They’re giving these two back because they were stolen from Nigerian museums after independence, not because they were looted in 1897. This return is about PR and legality, not morality.

Barnaby Phillips is the author of Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes (Oneworld, 2021).