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Nigerian 18th century, Court of Benin, ‘Fowl,’ mid 18th century, brass with cast iron supports, overall with base: 52.3 by 18 by 46.9cm, 30.391 kg (20 9/16 by 7 1/16 by 18 7/16in., 67 lb.). Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

Three American museums return Benin bronzes to Nigeria

Nigerian 18th century, Court of Benin, ‘Fowl,’ mid 18th century, brass with cast iron supports, overall with base: 52.3 by 18 by 46.9cm, 30.391 kg (20 9/16 by 7 1/16 by 18 7/16in., 67 lb.). Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art
Nigerian 18th century, Court of Benin, ‘Fowl,’ mid 18th century, brass with cast iron supports, overall with base: 52.3 by 18 by 46.9cm, 30.391 kg (20 9/16 by 7 1/16 by 18 7/16in., 67 lb.). Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Art

WASHINGTON — On the morning of Tuesday, October 11, the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) held a ceremony to mark the transfer of ownership of the National Gallery of Art’s sole Benin bronze to the Nigerian National Collections along with 29 sculptures from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) and one sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum. These 31 objects from the National Gallery, NMAfA and RISD Museum are among the first Benin bronzes to be repatriated to Nigeria by American institutions on the basis of the 1897 British colonial raid of the Royal Palace of Benin.

Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, delivered remarks at the ceremony held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, and said, “The National Gallery of Art is pleased to work with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments to repatriate this sculpture and return the remarkable work where it belongs — with the people of Nigeria. We are honored to join with the Smithsonian Institution and RISD Museum in this historic moment, as the first American institutions to return Benin Bronzes stolen 125 years ago from their place of origin.”

The RISD Museum’s Interim Director Sarah Ganz Blythe said: “In 1897 the Head of an Oba was stolen from the Royal Palace of Oba Ovonranwmen. The RISD Museum has worked with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments to repatriate this sculpture to the people of Nigeria where it belongs. We are honored to join with the National Gallery of Art and Smithsonian Institution in important work, as the first US institutions to return Benin Bronzes.”

Minister of Information and Culture of Nigeria, the Honorable Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said: “Nigeria is immensely gratified at the commendable decision of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, the National Gallery of Art and the Rhode Island School of Design to return these artifacts that left Africa over a century ago. Nigeria looks forward to working with these institutions on joint exhibitions and other educational exchanges. By returning the artifacts, these institutions are together writing new pages in history. Their brave decision to return the timeless artworks is worth emulating.”

Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), said: “I am very delighted that these transfers to Nigeria by these eminent institutions are actually taking place. This event opens a new vista regarding American cultural institutions’ relationship with Nigeria. The event is a harbinger of greater things to come as other museums and institutions here in the United States with collections of Benin bronzes are expected to follow suit. We hope for great collaborations with these museums and institutions and we have already opened promising discussions with them concerning this. The entire world is welcome to join in this new way of doing things. A way free from rancours and misgivings. A way filled with mutual respect.”

Edo (African culture), ‘Head of a king (Oba),’ probably 1700s. Deaccessioned by the RISD Museum Fine Arts Committee and Board of Governors, Fall 2020. Ex-gift of Miss Lucy T. Aldrich. Courtesy of the RISD Museum
Edo (African culture), ‘Head of a king (Oba),’ probably 1700s. Deaccessioned by the RISD Museum Fine Arts Committee and Board of Governors, Fall 2020. Ex-gift of Miss Lucy T. Aldrich. Courtesy of the RISD Museum

Remarks were also made by Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution; Ngaire Blankenberg, director of the National Museum of African Art; Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments; Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture of Nigeria; and Prince Aghatise Erediauwa of the Benin Kingdom. Following the ceremony, representatives signed documents officially transferring ownership of the objects to the NCMM.

While it is National Gallery policy not to deaccession objects from its collection, in rare and special cases it may determine that objects should be deaccessioned for restitution or repatriation. Following years of research by the National Gallery staff into the provenance of the Fowl, the National Gallery of Art’s Board of Trustees voted on May 7, 2020 to deaccession the sculpture. Subsequently, the National Gallery communicated its interest in repatriating the sculpture to the oba of the Royal Court of Benin. Since then, the National Gallery has worked with the NCMM to transfer ownership of the object on a mutually agreeable schedule and terms.

The Fowl was reportedly taken in 1897 from the Royal Palace of Benin, in present-day Nigeria, by colonial British forces during a punitive expedition. In addition to exiling the oba and burning the palace, the British forces looted the royal treasures, distributing some to individuals involved, but selling most at auction in London to pay for the cost of the expedition. The Fowl was acquired by Alexander A. Cowan, a British merchant who worked for trading firms based in Nigeria, and sold at Sotheby’s, London, in 1954. The object was then purchased in 1955 from J.J. Klejman Gallery, New York, by Mr. and Mrs. Winston F.C. Guest and given later that year to the National Gallery. The sculpture has been installed in the galleries of the National Gallery periodically and has been lent several times to the National Museum of African Art.

The Fowl is considered one of the finest extant examples of Benin sculptures of roosters. It is believed that these objects were placed on royal altars honoring queen mothers. The rope border along the base of the copper-alloy sculpture suggests a date in the reign of Oba Eresonyen (1735–1750). The double-twist pattern represents what is called “the rope of the world,” a royal emblem and symbol of infinite wisdom.

The transfer ceremony also included the return of the Head of a King (Oba), a Benin bronze that had been in the RISD Museum collection until its deaccessioning in September of 2020. The bronze was given to the RISD Museum by Lucy Truman Aldrich in 1939. It was acquired in a 1935 sale of objects from the Benin Kingdom from the Knoedler Gallery in New York. A sticker reading “Imported from France” and a French customs stamp on the interior suggest that it had been in a French collection. Although RISD Museum officials have not been able to trace this head to a specific French or British collection, it was almost certainly one of the objects looted during the 1897 raid.

The bronze head is an idealized representation of an oba, or king, of the Edo people of Benin, West Africa, and is an example that illustrates the technical mastery of royal Benin artists, who were introduced to lost-wax casting techniques by neighboring Yoruba artists. Metalworking remains an important tradition in this part of Africa today. Commemorative heads such as this one were commissioned by an incoming oba to honor his departed predecessor, and were placed on ancestral altars in the royal palace.

The oba’s high status is indicated by his cap of coral beads and the single cowrie shell placed on the middle of his forehead. Braids and additional beaded strands frame his face. Above each of his eyes — opened wide to signify that he was all-seeing — are three scarification patterns. A tubular bead collar covers his chin and neck. An elephant tusk, carved using techniques acquired through trade with the Portuguese, once protruded from the hole on top of his head.

The oba possessed political and religious authority and held sweeping powers to govern his subjects. The official owner of Benin lands and final adjudicator of justice, he oversaw resources and regulated trade with other African kingdoms and with European traders, including the Portuguese and Dutch. During the period in which this sculpture was made, the Benin Empire exerted a powerful presence on the west coast of Africa.

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Benin bronzes