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The week in art news – Germany transfers ownership of Benin Bronzes

8 July 2022

The governments of Germany and Nigeria have signed an agreement for the transfer of ownership of 1,130 works of art to Nigeria. All of the works – collectively known as Benin Bronzes though they include sculptures made of brass and ivory – were looted during the British punitive expedition to Benin in 1897, before arriving in the collections of 20 German museums. Two objects – a head of an Oba (king) and a 16th-century plaque – were handed over during the ceremony on 1 July at which the agreement was signed. Talks continue over the timeframe for the return to Nigeria of further artefacts, with the Nigerian government agreeing to keep some of the works in Germany on loan, while the German government has pledged support for new museum facilities in Benin City.

The Italian Ministry of Culture has asked museums and archaeological sites to refrain from signing contracts relating to the sale of digital copies of works in their collections as NFTs. Massimo Osanna, director general of museums in Italy, has said that the request will shortly be followed by directives to the same effect. Last year, the Uffizi granted permission for the Milan-based company Cinello to mint and sell an NFT of Michelangelo’s Doni Tondo; the digital copy of the work made €240,000, with the museum recently revealing that it has earned €70,000 in profits from the agreement. ‘The matter is complex and unregulated,’ Osanna told the Art Newspaper. ‘The basic intention [of the ministry’s request] is to avoid unfair contracts.’

Activists from the Just Stop Oil coalition have continued to carry out protests in major UK art institutions this week. On Monday, two campaigners glued themselves to the frame of Constable’s Hay Wain at the National Gallery in London, after covering the painting with sheets of paper depicting an ‘apocalyptic vision of the future’, causing minor damage to the varnish and the frame. The gallery said later on Monday that this has been ‘successfully dealt with’. On Tuesday, five protestors repeated the action at the Royal Academy, gluing themselves to a reproduction of Leonardo’s Last Supper thought to be by the artist’s pupil, Giampetrino. They also spray-painted the words ‘No new oil’ on a plinth beneath the painting. Last week, the coalition targeted paintings in the same way at the Courtauld in London, the Kelvingrove in Glasgow and the Manchester Art Gallery; in each case the protestors were taken into custody, though as of Tuesday no charges had yet been brought.

Marcus Fairs, the founder and editor-in-chief of Dezeen magazine, has died at the age of 54. Fairs launched Dezeen in 2006; the online magazine has since come to exert significant influence in the worlds of design and architecture, with around three million visitors to the site a month. Paying tribute to Fairs, the architect Norman Foster has said that ‘Marcus was instrumental in setting a new direction of architectural journalism in the UK.’