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Nigeria’s Looted Iconic Artifacts Resident Abroad



Nigeria is blessed with great artists who have produced great works that should be adorning the nation’s galleries and museums, unfortunately, these works which are part of the nation’s history and artistry have been denied Nigerians as they were looted and taken abroad. CHINELO CHIKELU reports.

Within the past 10 decades, there has been an increased global interest in contemporary African Art. Nigerian artists such as Yusuf Grillo, and Ben Enwonwu are fast becoming household names globally for collectors and galleries.

Today, thousands of Nigerian Artifacts from across the country are scattered in museums and institutions, in Europe and America.

In his piece Nigeria Celebrates Return of Lost Treasures: The Lost Nigerian Treasures Are Not Yet Back, Dr. Kwame Opoku listed three museums as possessing the largest number of looted Nigerian artifacts; the Ethnology Museum, Berlin which has 508 Benin artifacts, World Museum, Vienna which has 167 Benin artifacts, and the British Museum which is believed to be holding the largest number of looted traditional and iconic African art.

LEADERSHIP Weekend reviews a few of these iconic artworks still resident abroad, what has been done so far to retrieve them and the way forward for their full repatriation to Nigeria.

The Igbo-Ukwu Bronze

Believed to be dated as far as the 9th Century, the Igbo-Ukwu bronze was first discovered in 1939 in the present southeastern part of the country, by a local villager, Isaiah Anozie, while digging beside his home. Other art pieces were excavated in 1959 by archaeologist Thurstan Shaw at the request of the Nigerian government. Igbo Ukwu artifacts include, a small staff, a head of a ram, a large manila, an intricately designed crescent-shaped vessel and a small pendant in the shape of a tribal chief’s head with tattoo marks on the face. These are resident in the British Museum, UK. Radio-carbon dating placed the sites around the 9th and 10th century or earlier, which makes the Igbo Ukwu culture the earliest known example of bronze casting in the region. The craftsmen were working centuries before those who made the more well-known Ife bronzes.

Ile Ife Art

Made up of the ancient and naturalistic bronze, stone, terracotta sculptures as well as glass beads, whose artistry peaked in the 1200s to 1400 AD.

The Ife Head

The Bronze Head: is one of the 18 copper alloy sculptures unearthed in 1938 at Ife, now Osun State, Nigeria, the religious and former royal center of the Yoruba people. The head presently located at the British Museum is that of a ruler Ooni, made under the patronage of King Obalufon II. The head is made using the lost wax technique and is approximately three quarters life-size, measuring 35cm high. The head is designed to appear naturalistic; the face covered with incised striations, but the lips are unmarked. The headdress composed of different layers of tube shaped beads and tassels, typical of bronze heads from Ife. The lifelike rendering of the sculptures from medieval Ife is exceptional in sub-Saharan African Art. From March to July, 2014, the British Museum held a major exhibition entitled Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures of West Africa which displayed works of art found in and around Ife.

Benin Art

During the 1897 punitive expedition by the British military of the 16th century Benin Empire, prior to the exiling of the Oba to Calabar, they looted the empire confiscating about 3,000 art pieces of its royal art treasury. Some they gave to individual officers but auctioned off most of it in London to recover the cost of the expedition.

Looted Benin treasures can be found in Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Germany; World Museum, Vienna, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Metropolitan Museum, New York.

Some of the iconic Benin Artifacts looted are:

The Benin Ivory Mask, a miniature sculptural portrait ivory of the Queen Mother of the 16th century of Benin Empire. Presently it is located at the British Museum; the Benin pendant mask now known as the FESTAC Mask; a similar image of Queen Idia is also found in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, put larger than the ivory pendant. In July 2017, the bust of Queen Idia, in Ethnology Museum, Berlin, was projected for transfer to the Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany.

The Ibis Bird: the bird was just one of the 3, 000 bronze artifacts removed by the British Military from the Oba’s palace in Benin, in 1897.

Head of Oba of Benin: According to Dr. Opoku, as of February 24, 2018 the Head of Oba, a commemorative head and nine other Benin bronze relief panels were last seen in part of Nazi-looted art, up for auction, Zemanek-Münster, Wurzburg, Germany. 

The Benin objects were part of the Rudolf Mosse art collection that the Nazis confiscated and compulsorily auctioned in 1934. After several changes in ownership, these Benin objects became part of the estate of Gerda Bassenge (1915-1995) who acquired them in 1966 and are still part of the Bassenge property.

Of this particular artifact, a German Felix von Luschan, Die Altertumer von said in 1919: “These Benin works stand among the highest heights of European casting. Benvenuto Cell could not have made a better cast himself, nor anyone before or after him, even to the present day. These bronzes reach the very heights of what is technically possible.”

Okukor: A Bronze cockerel also stolen from the Benin Royal palace in Nigeria. The Cockerel was bequeathed to Jesus College in 1930 by an army captain, George William Neville, whose son attended the college. In 2016, the College’s Student Union approved a motion supporting the repatriation of the cockerel. The debate was opened by Ghanaian student Amatey Doku, who said Okukor was stolen on a punitive expedition in reprisal for the killing of British traders in which the Kingdom of Benin was destroyed and 3, 000 pieces of art were stolen.

Pair of Leopard Figures: In the collection of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II, in London, UK, the commanders of the British Punitive Expedition force to Benin in 1897 sent a pair of the leopards to the British Queen soon after the looting and burning of Benin City.

Repatriation Efforts

Since before the creation of National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), of which the organ’s first director general and Nigerian Art historian and writer, Ekpo Eyo, Nigeria has pursued the repatriation of the looted artifacts via international policies and instruments like United Nations Education Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and International Council of Museum (ICOM).

However, the resulting resolution modified to read like a general appeal for restitution and circulated by Nigeria to embassies and high commissions of countries known to have large stock of Benin Artifacts received no response.

Dr. Opoku who finds suspect NCMM’s 2017 exhibition tagged, “The Return of the Lost Treasures: An Exhibition of Repatriated Artifacts, said, “none of the Nigerian iconic and famous artifacts mentioned above, was among the pieces displayed in Nigeria.”

According to him, “Most of the artifacts displayed at the exhibition appear inferior in quality to the Nigerian artifacts that are at present in western museums in Boston, Berlin, Paris and London. They do not appear in authoritative works as those written by the great Ekpo Eyo. The artifacts were seized at a Nigerian border, the Owode Border.”

Besides individual efforts, as in 2014 by retired British medical consultant, Mark Walker who decided to give back to the Oba of Benin, two bronze sculptures taken from his grandfather, the Nigerian government hasn’t taken much decisive step to retrieve the stolen artifacts.

Some are of the opinion that in the past 57 years quiet diplomacy to persuade countries to repatriate the stolen artifacts has met no success. Nigeria must intensify pressure on the countries to repatriate the stolen artifacts.

More pressure can be exerted on countries to respond through the ratification of the UNESCO Convention of 1970 and other international instruments pointing out availability and assistance from the UNESCO Secretariat to ensure countries signatory to the convention comply with the mandate. Likewise, the involvement of the Nigerians-in-diaspora to secure return of looted treasures should be encouraged, as they have proven useful in the prevention of sale of the artifacts. In addition, legislation should be reviewed to cover antiquities to take into account the various proposals that have been made by Nigerian experts.