Nigeria Must Demand the Return of the Country’s Looted Antiques

Benin artifacts
Benin artefacts are still held in European museums

Nigeria’s perplexing ‘quiet diplomacy’ in the pursuit of precious pieces of art looted by the colonialists over a century ago has not resulted in the return of the artefacts. It is time to make loud, firm and vigorous demands.

On 1 October 2012, anniversary of Nigeria’s independence, I am reading an article by Tajudeen Sowole, in The Guardian titled, ‘Ahead of 2013 show of looted Benin artefacts, US museum plots legitimacy’. [1] I could not help feeling sad and angry that after some 52 years of independence that great African country is being treated with such contempt and disrespect by Western museums in the question of restitution of looted Nigerian artefacts.

What is even more depressing is to recognise that the same baseless arguments that have been demolished several times are still being presented by Western museum directors. As we have often written, if such arguments were presented by a university student they would be thrown out of the class for lack of seriousness. And yet they are being presented by products of the fine universities of the West – Berlin, Cambridge, Chicago, Columbia, Harvard, London, Oxford, Paris and Yale. It seems contempt for Africans enables these museum directors to put forward contemptible arguments without shame. How can the director of the Boston Museum advance the number of visitors to his museum as the answer to Nigeria’s request for restitution?

‘This important gift affords the unique possibility of sharing these extraordinary works of arts, previously in a private collection, with as many people as possible; over a million visitors of diverse backgrounds come to the MFA each year from around the globe.’ [2]

Confronted with overall criticism of its acquisition of looted Benin artefacts, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is seeking to create for its controversial acquisition a semblance of legitimacy. [3] This may satisfy some, but the critical and careful observers will not be convinced by the method apparently chosen so far.

What the museum has done is to inform the Benin Royal Family about the acquisition of the controversial donation. [4] We do not know whether this information was sent before or after the acquisition of the looted objects. The impression created by this act could induce some to think that the Benin Royal Family has agreed to the museum acquiring those objects or somehow has acquiesced to their acquisition. Although the Royal Family acknowledges the receipt of the letter of information from the museum, there is no written response from Benin City. This leaves room for speculation and interpretation of the position of the Benin Monarchy on this particular matter. It is true, though, that the Royal Family has stated on several occasions that the Benin artefacts that were looted with violence in the 1897 invasion by the British must be returned. [5] But in such a concrete situation one could be entitled to think there would be a specific answer to the museum. By not answering the letter from the museum, the general demands previously made by the Royal Family will be considerably weakened.

We have not seen the letter from the Boston Museum to the Benin Monarchy. It would appear, however, that the museum may have asked for the cooperation of the monarchy in the proposed 2013 exhibition in Boston on Benin Art. This cooperation may perhaps include lending of other Benin artefacts as well as the physical participation of a Benin delegation in the exhibition. Some Benin scholars may even have been asked to give lectures on aspects of Benin art. The Boston museum surely has studied the procedures and practices of the other ‘universal museums’ in organising the exhibitions, ‘Benin Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria. and Kingdom of Ife: Sculptures from West Africa’. [6]

We have no information whether the Nigerian Commission on Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has also been invited to participate. However, we can take for granted that the Commission was approached before contacts were established between Benin City and Boston. The NCMM would in all probability have been asked to collaborate in the preparation of the exhibition and even requested to lend some of the Benin artefacts under its control; its presence at the opening of the exhibition and preparation of lectures on Benin art may also have been requested following the pattern of recent exhibitions of the NCMM with Western museums that refuse to return looted Nigerian artefacts. [7]

The NCMM has recently issued a series of statements demanding the return of looted Nigerian artefacts. This seems to indicate a change in its policy regarding restitution of looted artefacts in the western museums. [8] These have been general statements of policy but the demand directed at the Boston museum has been negatively answered. [9] The Boston museum refers in its response to the large number of visitors to the museum who would be able to appreciate Benin artefacts in a hall to be devoted wholly to Benin art.

Benin art
Stolen Nigerian artefacts in European hands

The impact of the various statements by the NCMM for the restitution of the looted objects has been relativised by other declarations by the commission on its intention to pursue the previous policy of ‘quiet diplomacy’ and ‘diplomatic dialogue’:

‘In the meantime, the Commission is pursuing restitution and return, has adopted approaches that are firmly anchored within the framework of the foreign policy direction of the Federal Republic of Nigeria, which is principally dialogue rather than undue combativeness…. We indeed believe that dialogue is more productive than confrontation. This, however, must not be misunderstood as weakness on our part.’ [10]

This policy of quiet diplomacy which Nigeria has pursued since independence (1960) has not resulted in the restitution of noteworthy artefacts. The attempt to list the success story of quiet diplomacy is exhausted after a few items, many of which have been returned as result of police/custom disruption of transport of looted artefacts and not as a result of negotiations on restitution.

‘Nigeria’s effort at restitution was recently rewarded when Terra-cotta effigies of more than a thousand years were returned from Canada on the 24th of February, 2009. Before this, the L’Office central de repression du vol des oeuvres et des objets d’art (O.C.R.V.O.O.A.) had also returned three Ife bronze heads stolen and found in France. Benin bronze artefacts sold to Galerie Walu in Zurich were also returned to Nigeria.

‘In September this year, the Commission shall be receiving from the Embassy of France five Nok Sculptures which were intercepted in August 2010 by the French Customs from shipments originating from Togo.’ [11].