UK University to return looted Benin sculpture

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The University of Aberdeen in Scotland has said it would return a Benin bronze sculpture to Nigeria, saying it was acquired by British soldiers in 1897 in “reprehensible circumstances”.

In a statement on Thursday, the university said the development makes it one of the first public institutions to do so more than a century after Britain looted the sculptures and auctioned them to Western museums and collectors.

According to the statement, the sculpture depicting an Oba of Benin had left Nigeria in an “extremely immoral” fashion, leading it to reach out to authorities in 2019 to negotiate its return.

The university acquired the bronze sculpture at auction in 1957, and it is considered a classic example of Benin Late Period Art.

It was originally taken in 1897, when a British military expedition attacked and destroyed Benin City, looting thousands of metal and ivory sculptures and carvings, known as the Benin bronzes, from the royal palace.

Benin City, in present-day southern Nigeria, was the seat of a powerful West African kingdom at the time.

The university called it “one of the most notorious examples of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with 19th-century European colonial expansion”.

“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances,” said university vice-chancellor George Boyne.

Aberdeen’s head of museums and special collections, Neil Curtis, said the Bronze, purchased in 1957, had been “blatantly looted.”

“It became clear we had to do something,” Curtis said.

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Director-General of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Professor Abba Isa Tijani, said the importance of displaying the Bronze inside Nigeria for the first time in more than 120 years was inexpressible.

“Its part of our identity, part of our heritage… which has been taken away from us for many years,” Tijani said.

Britain’s soldiers seized thousands of metal castings and sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin, then separate from British-ruled Nigeria, in 1897.

The development is the latest in ongoing efforts to recovered looted artworks from Nigeria.

The British Museum, which holds hundreds of the sculptures, has alongside several other museums formed a Benin Dialogue Group to discuss displaying them in Benin City, some officially on loan. It has said discussions are ongoing.

Germany had earlier revealed that efforts were ongoing to send back 440 Benin Bronzes as early as the autumn while the University of Cambridge’s Jesus College said it had finalized approvals in December to return another Bronze.

Tijani also disclosed that US museums had also agreed to return two more Bronzes.

Artist and Edo state native Victor Ehikhamenor said he hoped the decision would prompt others to follow suit.

“Because some of these things are missing from our environment, people are not able to contextualize where we are coming from,” Ehikhamenor said.