Denver Art Museum removes looted Benin bronze from its collection

Courtesy of Denver Art Museum

The royal palace of Benin was adorned with hundreds of ornate plaques, like this one. It was taken from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 and sent to the collection of the British Foreign Service Office. The Denver Art Museum purchased the plate from the Carlebach Gallery in New York in 1955.

The Denver Art Museum has officially removed a looted Benin plaque from its collection – the first step towards repatriating a precious relic that the British looted from West Africa more than a century ago.

The move to “disposal” or removal of the object from the museum’s collection earlier this month comes as collections around the world re-examine and outright return objects in their possession that were looted during colonial rule. .

The renowned Denver Art Museum acquired the 16th or 17th century bronze plaque from the Carlebach Gallery in New York in 1955. It is one of the so-called “Benin Bronzes” that once adorned the royal palace of the Oba, or King, of Benin in what is now southern Nigeria.

“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, a collar of elaborate coral, an embroidered skirt, belt and anklets”. says the museum on its website.

In November, the museum told the Denver Post that it had not exhibited the plaque in years and was working with experts to understand its full provenance or ownership history. But the museum then refused to officially remove the object from its collection or repatriate it to Nigeria.

Now, as other US institutions are under pressure to return the Benin bronzes to their rightful owners, Denver museum officials have decided to remove the object from the museum’s collection.

The art institution is also looking at a small bronze pendant or belt mask in the “royal court style” in its collection that is believed to have placed it in the Kingdom of Benin during the British raid of 1897. This research is in progress.

“The museum will continue to act in good faith as a global partner on issues of repatriation and return of artworks,” museum spokesman Andy Sinclair said in an email. “To date, the museum has not been contacted by anyone in Nigeria regarding these works or requests for their return.”

During the 1897 reprisal offensive by British forces, officers confiscated dozens of royal treasures from colonial subjects in Benin. Some went to officers who took part in the raid, but most went to an auction in London to help pay for the expedition.

Over the past century, these rare bronzes from Benin have been scattered to hundreds of institutions around the world – from Denver to New York to Germany.

But now these same institutions are rethinking the ethics of exhibiting works they know are looted – a seismic shift in the art world that comes amid a global reckoning with racial injustice. and a re-examination of colonial domination.

European collections in recent years have begun to return these objects to Nigeria. The West African nation plans to open a museum next year to showcase its long-lost relics.

American museums, however, have been slower to respond to these calls for repatriation.

The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., at a watershed moment, agreed in March to return its collection of 39 works of short-style art from the Kingdom of Benin to Nigeria — a move that could spur other U.S. institutions to follow suit. .

A Washington Post survey of American art museums last week found 56 institutions with Beninese pieces in their collections. At least 16 said they were engaged in the repatriation process and five others would be willing to do so if asked.

“This is a watershed moment,” Christopher Woods, director of the Museum of Archeology and Anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, told The Washington Post.

The Denver Art Museum recently released four Cambodian antiques that had ties to indicted art dealer Douglas Latchford.

Mildred D. Field