“Commemorative Head of an Oba”, Nigeria, Benin Kingdom, 16th century. Brass, height: 9 1/8 inches. (Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art)
As some other museums repatriate looted art, attention turns to the museum’s prized “Commemorative Head of an Oba”
When The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art landed a rare Nigerian sculpture in the late 1980s, it touted the find as perhaps the most expensive piece of African art ever bought by a museum. Although never officially announced, the price was estimated by “The Kansas City Star” to fall in a range just below a million dollars.
Now, more than 30 years later, the museum finds itself in a quandary. As at least three prominent museums in Europe and the United States have announced they are repatriating similar sculptures, the Nelson might be facing a choice of holding onto the object or sending it back.
The issue involves looting, and whether such prized possessions acquired by the world’s museums should be regarded as trophies of war or cultural patrimony belonging to their place of origin.
Nelson officials are, perhaps understandably, opaque on the subject, certainly less effusive than their predecessors when the sculpture came into the museum’s possession.
As the museum announced in February 1988, the 16th-century sculpture, a memorial head from a royal court, “ranks among the masterworks of Benin art.”
The sculpture, a regally adorned head with a naturally expressive, eyes-wide-open face, has been a highlight of the Nelson-Atkins’ African galleries ever since. It belongs to a group collectively known in the museum world as Benin Bronzes.
But now it might be shrouded in baggage.
In its press release at the time, the museum noted that the “Commemorative Head of an Oba” was believed to have been among a cache of objects taken by British troops in 1897. The British were in the process of annexing the territory and leveling the kingdom in a campaign known as the Benin Punitive Expedition. Before its acquisition, the piece had long been in unidentified private hands.
Today, in an age of post-colonial thought, heightened cultural activism and profound art-world self-reflection, museums have been recalibrating their moral compasses.
As reported earlier this year by “The Guardian” and Reuters, Scotland’s University of Aberdeen planned to return a bronze sculpture absconded by those British troops in 1897. Previously, according to “ArtNews,” the Humboldt Forum in Berlin announced it would no longer display Benin bronzes long held by the city’s Ethnological Museum and that German and Nigerian officials were in talks about returning them.
“The British Museum holds the largest collection of the bronzes, and activists have been calling for it to follow suit,” “ArtNews” reported.
When asked about the Benin sculpture early this year, the Nelson would only say its investigation into provenance issues has been underway for some time. “We are aware of the Humboldt’s and the University of Aberdeen’s decisions,” spokeswoman Kathleen Leighton wrote in a statement. “As part of our continuing provenance research into all our collections, which we have been undertaking for a number of years and which originally focused on our European collections, we began last summer to turn our attention additionally to our African collections in their entirety.”
Since that statement, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced in June that it would return two 16th-century bronze plaques to a museum in Lagos, Nigeria. It also arranged for the repatriation of a bronze head that had been offered for sale. The pieces had once been owned by the British Museum, according to “ArtNews,” and transferred to the Lagos museum, but inexplicably landed on the market in the 1950s, according to “The New York Times.”
Nigeria’s minister of Information and Culture praised “the sense of justice displayed by The Metropolitan Museum of Art” and encouraged other museums to follow along, according to the museum’s statement. “The art world can be a better place,” said the minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, “if every possessor of cultural artifacts considers the rights and feelings of the dispossessed.”
Nelson officials, when approached on the subject in July, had little to add to their earlier statement.
“We have been following these events, of course,” said William Keyes Rudolph, the museum’s deputy director for curatorial affairs. “With respect to objects in the Nelson-Atkins’ own collection, we will make decisions based on the best information we have about the provenance of these objects. Our own research into the African collections began last summer and continues. Like any research project, this is a process that can take time, as records for these objects are not always readily available.”
In 1988, experts considered the Nelson’s piece and one at the Met as the earliest examples of as many as 10 of these memorial heads known to exist at the time. Although often referred to as the Benin Bronzes, this group of sculptures and other artifacts were made of various materials, including wood and ivory.
The market for Benin objects was in overdrive at the time, and a year after the Nelson announced its acquisition, Christie’s in London sold a Benin head for about $2.1 million. And, according to journalist Barnaby Phillips’ new book, “Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes,” in recent years another head sold privately for 10 million pounds, or roughly $13 million.
It is unclear whether the Met in New York also has designated for repatriation a Benin memorial sculpture, the “Horn Player,” which it had acquired in the 1970s, or any other pieces from its collection of about 160 works connected with the Benin kingdom. (The kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria had no historical relation to today’s Republic of Benin, a nation once called Dahomey just to the west of Nigeria.)
The Nelson-Atkins collection also includes two cast-brass Benin plaques acquired in 1958, according to its website, and nearly 400 other objects from around the African continent.
In the wake of multiple departures, the museum’s curatorial staff listing no longer includes a curator for African art. Rudolph said he and a staff provenance specialist are on the case.
The whole issue remains difficult to navigate and perhaps enormously complicated for institutions whose mission is to serve various publics. For one thing, Great Britain has much more to answer for in the Benin Bronzes affair. The U.S. did not plunder the kingdom of Benin. Still, do our art museums have a role to play in the way the world works? Should they set examples as global citizens?
Nelson-Atkins officials may well yet decide where the museum’s moral compass is set. Or whether, in this particular case, it even comes into play.
Rudolph notes that the Nelson-Atkins provenance policy is available for all to see on its website. Beyond that, no one has raised a question about the “Commemorative Head of an Oba.” “To date,” he said, “we have not received any specific inquiries or claims about these works.”