The Return of Looted Antiquities
By Hwaa Irfan
One of the key aspects that dominate the crises that we are going through is possession of material things. That obsession becomes apparent when there is war as in the case of Syria where like Iraq archaeological sites and museums of Syria have been looted, and even destroyed.
Assyrian temple has been destroyed at Tell Sheikh Hamad and the wall and towers of al-Madiq castle, one of the most forward Crusader fortresses in the Levant, have been ravaged. It is a different matter however when those possessions serves as record of history, or as sacred items to a past long forgotten or tradition still alive.
The situation is no less for Nigeria even after 52 years of an independence that has been more on paper than a reality.
Examples of Nigerian antiquities are visible in Berlin, Cambridge, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, London, Oxford, Paris and Yale with Boston Museum making the most of its collection which it believes are to be shared by the world, of course without official Nigerian consent.
The arrogance continues with the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, which treats the matter as normal by informing the Benin Royal Family which in turn the Benin Royal Family accepts as a fait-a-complie without response. Why should they respond to an insult that involves items that were stolen in the 1897 British invasion of Nigeria. One example of “dare and do” is the travelling exhibition by the British Museum, “Ife, Osun State titled Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa.” It was said to be in collaboration with the questionable Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), the British Museum, Fundacion Marcelino Botin of Spain and the Museum of African Art, New York. Containing over 100 pieces if brass, copper, stone, terracotta and ivory from the NCMM.
In that exhibition was the Queen Mask of Idia (British Museum), which was stolen from Nigeria by the British in what has been referred to as the Benin Kingdom Punitive Expedition of 1897
The pendant mask is carved in ivory and formed part of the Michael C. Rockefeller Memorial Collection, as a gift from Nelson A. Rockefeller in 1972. With all the wealth and power of the Rockefellers, they still prefer to steal than pay their way even in their pastimes.
The Queen Mask of Idia came from the Benin Royal Court, and represents a period of Queen Mothers which ended with the ascent of male power by the end of the 15th century. It was a period when women were honoured, and were perceived to have great powers. The Queen Mask of Idia is a real life image, of the first Queen Mother, and was even worn by kings in ceremony.
Beyond the superstitions, the Queens head represented not her physical head, but her inner mind, representing balance, patience and good countenance. The Queen or more accurately, the Great Mother represented all mothers, united by the flow of blood/menses; and all women represented patience and balance, qualities that men are to emulate in order to survive. The masks serve to dramatize the spiritual and more mystical nature of womanhood which is self-contained, but when angered like the Hindu Kali, seek revenge. Given the obsession of global governors with instruments of power, one wanders how much the perceived possession of such an item is what attracted them to it in the first instance as exampled by the novel-cum-film The Da Vinci Code.
In 1970, member countries adopted UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, but this did not stop the looting that has taken place in Iraq, Syria, and even Egypt during the January 25 2011 youth revolt.
A trickle of items have been returned however as in 2009, when Canada returned the 1,000 year old terracotta effigies, the three Ife bronze heads from the French L’Office central de repression du vol des oeuvres et des objets d’art, and Benin bronze artefacts from Zurich’s Galerie Walu.
List of Holders of Benin Bronzes
Berlin – Ethnologisches Museum 580.
Boston, – Museum of Fine Arts 28.
Chicago – Art Institute of Chicago 20, Field Museum 400
Cologne – Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum 73.
Glasgow _ Kelvingrove and St, Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life 22
Hamburg – Museum für Völkerkunde, Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe 196
Dresden – Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 182
Leipzig – Museum für Völkerkunde 87
Leiden – Rijksmuseum voor Volkenkunde 98
London – British Museum 900
New York – Metropolitan Museum of Fine Art 163
Oxford – Pitt-Rivers Museum/ Pitt-Rivers country residence, Rushmore in Farnham/Dorset 327
Stuttgart – Linden Museum-Staatliches Museum für Völkerkunde 80
Vienna – Museum für Völkerkunde 167
The director of the British Museum, Neil MacGregor, argues:
“When you see these objects they will mean more to you in your own experience than they would in London or the place where they were made”
The trouble is, those artefacts were never created to provide an income for Museums, but to be used, and thereafter, to serve as a link to the past not as a record of history, but as a bridge from the material present, to the spiritual past.
The request from the return of antiquities intensified summer 2012, with the planned 2013 Museum of Fine Arts exhibition, which contains 32 stolen items. Added to this insult, was the offer of a major collection held by Robert Lehman of the Lehman Bros that was instrumental in the domino effect of the global economic crisis. Amongst the artefacts offered are 34 pieces that were stolen from the Kingdom of Benin by the British as passed down by his great grandfather. Any items of power obviously has not yet kicked in with the Lehmans.
Yusuf Abdallah Usman, Director General of NCMM has published a formal request for the repatriation of the Benin Kingdom bronzes and ivories in possession of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. By July 2012, the Museum began to respond.
The repeated mantra that no official request has been made, ignoring the petition that was made by the Oba of Benin to the British Parliament, as noted and reproduced in Parliamentary records. Even prior to that, the Benin Royal Family sent a demand to museums for the return of artefacts, which has also not been acknowledged. Yet, with Hitler’s daughter as the Chancellor of Germany, the British Parliament has passed a law, Holocaust (Return of Cultural Objects) Act 2009 that enables owners of Nazi looted artworks now in public British museums and galleries not only to obtain compensation for the loss but to receive the looted object., The Act makes it very clear that it only applies to actions relating to Nazi seizures within a specific period.
Agbetu, T. “Boston Museum Opens Dialogue Over Looted Benin Artefacts.” http://www.ligali.org/article.php?id=2306
“Idia: A Benin Legend” http://academics.smcvt.edu/africanart/arianne/idia.htm
Opoku, K. “Nigeria Must Demand the Return of Looted Antiques.” http://pambazuka.org/en/category/features/85248
Opoku, K. Blood Antiquities in Respectable Havens: Looted Benin Artefacts Donated to American Museum.” http://www.modernghana.com/news/405992/1/blood-antiquities-in-respectable-havens-looted-ben.html
Sowole, T. “Kingdom of Ife Reopens Debate on Restitution of Artefacts” http://africanartswithtaj.blogspot.com/2012/05/kingdom-of-ife-reopens-debate-on.html