The Benin bronzes are universally recognized as a towering achievement in the history of art.
Artists of the once-mighty Kingdom of Benin, in present day Edo State, Nigeria, honed sophisticated techniques over centuries to craft detailed depictions of life in the Kingdom, from court scenes to foreign soldiers.
The collection was looted wholesale in 1897 when the British army sacked the palace and razed the kingdom in a punitive expedition.
The bronzes were sold and scattered across Western museums, where they met with astonishment and prompted revisions of racist assumptions about African art.
Since independence, the Nigerian government has intermittently pressed claims for restitution of the bronzes, which the museums have resisted.
But a solution to the impasse may be at hand.
The Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) was formed in 2007 with the task of facilitating a permanent display of bronzes in Benin City.
The BDG bought together representatives of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), the Royal Court of Benin, and several European museums with bronze collections.
The most significant artworks are housed at the British Museum in London and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.
The group is now exploring the possibility of loaning artifacts back to Nigeria.
A spokesperson for the British Museum said a recent BDG meeting ended with a proposal “to work towards a permanent, but rotating, exhibition of loaned objects” to Nigeria.
The British Museum and others are open to contributing to this collection. Negotiations are at an early stage with no timescale established.
Crusoe Osagie, Special Adviser to Governor Obaseki Godwin of Edo State, told CNN that the administration favors permanent restitution, although he added that “in the event of not getting our wishes we have to negotiate.”
“A loan is not what we want or the best choice,” he said. “But in the absence of another choice, we can start with that.”
A loan arrangement may offer a way of bypassing the fraught issue of ownership.
The British Museum has rebuffed claims for permanent restitution of the bronzes, citing laws against museums disposing of assets.
Officials have also argued the Museum can offer greater access and superior curation for the bronzes as justification for keeping them in Britain.
Osagie does not accept the Museum’s claim to the bronzes.
“The question is whose property is this?” he says. “Whose culture is this and whose story does it tell? Europe is more accessible to most people around the world, but these items belong to us.”
Osagie adds that the Nigerian government could pursue compensation for the century the bronzes have spent abroad.
“If these items have been building revenue and income for people over the past decades – items that don’t belong to them, that were forcefully removed through violence – it is fair to say that they owe us.”
A suitable home
The bronzes’ passage home could be smoothed by a proposed new ‘world class’ museum in Benin City.
In April, Governor Obaseki announced plans for a new facility adjacent to the King’s Palace and expressed hope this would “encourage curators across Europe and other parts of the world to be confident and support the advocacy for the stolen artifacts of Benin Kingdom.”
Martin Bailey, Senior Correspondent for The Art Newspaper, says the lack of an elite venue in Benin City has been a barrier to regaining what he calls “arguably the finest works of art that have been created in sub-Saharan Africa.”
“Until now there has not really been a suitable place to lend objects of this importance,” says Bailey. “The British Museum will have to think more carefully if and when the (Benin) museum is built.”
But he adds “not all plans are realized – and I suspect very little will happen until the museum is actually built.”
Opening the floodgates?
The case of the Benin bronzes could set a significant precedent.
Many museums in Britain and Europe hold valuable artifacts seized in colonial times and face mounting pressure to return them. Loans could offer a release valve.
The Ethiopian government is seeking the Magdala Treasures, including ancient jewelry, clothing, and manuscripts, taken by the British Army in 1868 and now held at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
The museum’s director Tristram Hunt has proposed a long-term loan of the artifacts.
The Egyptian government is pursuing a loan of the Rosetta Stone from the British Museum, which has offered to loan the Elgin Marbles to Greece.
But few governments have been willing to weaken their claims to lost treasures by accepting a loan deal.
Western political leaders are also voicing support for permanent restitution.
France’s President Emmanuel Macron has pledged to return looted artifacts to Africa. UK Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has called for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to Greece – “as with anything stolen or taken from occupied or colonial possession.”
With growing demands from dispossessed countries for the return of artifacts and increasing recognition of the dubious provenance of such artworks in former colonial-power nations, museums face a struggle to justify continued ownership of contested collections.
Whether through permanent restitution or creative compromise, many stolen treasures could be heading home.