Denver Art Museum examines the fate of looted African art

DENVER (AP) — British troops staged a vicious retaliatory raid on the Kingdom of Benin in what is now southern Nigeria in 1897, looting and burning the royal palace and sending the oba, or king, into exile. The British confiscated all the royal treasures of their colonial subjects, giving some to officers but taking most to an auction in London to help pay for shipping.

These rare “Benin bronzes” from the last century have been scattered in hundreds of institutions around the world, including the Denver Art Museum, where a 16th or 17th century bronze plaque is one of 11 objects from the museum’s collection from the ancient kingdom. from Benin.

Now, amid a global toll on colonial history and a movement for racial justice, pressure is mounting for art collections such as Denver’s to return relics to their rightful owners. European institutions led the charge, pledging to return Benin’s bronzes to help Africa rebuild art collections lost to centuries of looting, but American collections have been slower to pick up.

“It’s not just about taking the artwork that was an act of war,” said Dan Hicks, a British curator and professor whose book, “The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution”, pleads in favor of the repatriation of the artifacts. in Nigeria. “The continued display of these objects in these museums represents for many an enduring act of violence.”

The Denver Art Museum has not exhibited any of its Beninese pieces in years, museum officials said in a statement, and last year began working with experts “so that we can better understand their full source”.

“At present, none of these items are on display, and the museum has not been contacted by Nigeria with any inquiries or requests for the return of the items,” the statement said.

The debate over the Benin bronzes comes as the Denver Art Museum grapples with the history of its own collection. In November, the museum voluntarily gave up four Cambodian antiquities after federal authorities decided to seize the objects. The US Department of Justice has alleged that the relics – sold to the museum by Douglas Latchford, who was indicted in 2019 for trafficking in looted antiquities – were looted in the Southeast Asian nation.

— How Denver earned its Benin bronze

The Benin bronzes are a bit of a misnomer – they are neither uniformly bronze nor from the country of Benin (the ancient kingdom of Benin is in southern Nigeria). Artifacts include everything from carved elephant tusks to ivory statues and wooden heads — plus iconic bronze plaques like the one at the Denver Art Museum.

“The royal palace of the Oba or King of Benin was adorned with hundreds of richly ornamented plaques, like this one, telling the story of life at court,” reads the description of the plaque on the Denver Art Museum website. “Cast using the lost-wax technique by a highly skilled craftsman, this plaque depicts the figure of a court noble or possibly a chief showing details of his regalia, including his helmet, an elaborate coral necklace , an embroidered skirt, a belt and anklets.”

The museum acquired the plate in 1955 from the Carlebach Gallery in New York. The coin was “taken” in 1897 by Sir Ralph Moor – who led the British Protectorate of the African Region and the Benin City Raid – from the Kingdom of Benin and sent to the collection of the British Foreign Service Office, according to the section “known provenance” of the object’s web page, which traces its history and acquisition.

The plaque is number 60 of 300 taken by Moor and originally displayed in the British Museum, according to Hicks, the British curator. About 100 of them were variously sold or given away.

The bronze plaque is the only object of 11 in the Denver Art Museum that “we can confirm was removed from the Kingdom by the British Foreign Service in 1897,” museum officials said.

In addition to taking a closer look at its Beninese collection last year, museum staff are also participating in a project called Digital Benin, a German-led initiative that “will bring together photographs, oral histories and rich documentation from from collections around the world to provide a long-requested overview of royal works of art looted in the 19th century,” the project’s website reads. Its launch is scheduled for 2022.

Benin bronzes are found in collections in England and Germany, New York and California. And they can fetch significant prices: One Benin Bronze – an oba’s head – sold in 2007 for $4.74 million.

— The Sarr-Savoy report

The discussion around looted colonial-era art was shaken in 2017 when Emmanuel Macron, the French president, told a group of students in Burkina Faso that the return of African artifacts kept in his country of origin would become an “absolute priority”.

“I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France,” Macron said. “African heritage cannot be limited to private collections and European museums.

Macron commissioned a report and the authors recommended in 2018 that items removed and sent to mainland France without the consent of their country of origin be permanently returned – if the country of origin requests them.

The numbers behind the looting of colonial art are startling: some 90-95% of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside the continent by major museums, experts estimate in the French report.

Known as the Sarr-Savoy report, it set off a domino effect across Europe and eventually the United States.

Germany announced in April that it would start returning around 1,100 Benin bronzes from its museums to Nigeria. A Dutch committee last year recommended the unconditional return of the objects to the former colonies of the Netherlands.

Last month, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, removed 10 Benin bronze pieces from display and pledged to repatriate them to Nigeria.

“We recognize the trauma, violence and loss that such displays of stolen artistic and cultural heritage can inflict on the victims of these crimes, their descendants and communities at large,” the museum said on its website.

Repatriation of items must be taken on a “case-by-case approach”, Hicks said. “We are not talking about emptying the museums and sending everything back. It’s about being open to giving back when asked.

But works of art such as the Benin Bronze housed in Denver are “the anthropology of this era,” he said. “They are used to tell a story of cultural supremacy that has no place in what we think of art museums today.”

In an essay titled “Give us back what our ancestors did”, Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor writes of the despondency he felt upon seeing these masterful works – iconic exhibits of his culture – hung in British museums.

“Generations of Africans have already lost incalculable historical and cultural landmarks due to the absence of some of the best works of art created on the continent,” wrote Ehikhamenor. “We shouldn’t have to ask, over and over again, to get back what’s ours.”

Nigeria plans to open a museum in Benin City in 2023 with at least 300 Beninese bronzes, mainly populated by pieces from major European collections.

“I want people to be able to understand their past and see who we were,” Godwin Obaseki, governor of Edo state, home to Benin City, told The New York Times.

— America Takes Its Time

While European institutions have taken the initiative to repatriate the artifacts, American collections have “been quite slow to respond”, said Rashida Bumbray, director of culture and art for the Open Society Foundations, a global network. Grantmaking, which last year pledged $15 million. towards the return of cultural objects to Africa.

The Smithsonian’s announcement is “a game-changer,” Bumbray said, but “the United States is falling behind.”

Many museums have been slow to respond to demands for greater transparency in their acquisition practices and stricter ethical practices, said Elizabeth Campbell, a University of Denver professor who directs the Center for Art Collection Ethics at school.

“Provenance research is very expensive, laborious, time consuming and has not been prioritized,” Campbell said. “Many museums invest in acquisition and not in research. We hope that will change as they come under better scrutiny.

The challenge of provenance research, according to a list of frequently asked questions by the Denver Art Museum, “is capacity and time, as we have over 70,000 works in our collection.” A multi-departmental provenance committee meets every two weeks to discuss provenance projects, the museum said.

The Denver Art Museum has faced further attempts to repatriate pieces from its collection.

The museum has abandoned the four Cambodian antiquities linked to Latchford and is looking at two other pieces from Thailand linked to the now deceased art dealer. In September, the museum also repatriated a statue from Nepal, and in 2016 returned to Cambodia a statue that had been looted during its tumultuous civil war in the 1970s.

There is now precedent for institutions to return Beninese bronzes, Hicks said, pointing to Germany as a world leader.

“The question now,” he said, “will this also be run from Denver?”

Mildred D. Field