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A sixteenth-century plaque depicting a junior court official. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.
A sixteenth-century plaque depicting a junior court official. Photo: Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Metropolitan Museum of Art to Repatriate Two Benin Bronzes

New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art will return a pair of Benin bronzes to Nigeria, becoming the latest major institution to do so and likely compelling others to do the same. The two sixteenth-century brass plaques slated for repatriation depict, respectively, a junior court official and a warrior chief, and are part of the trove of some 90,000 brass, bronze, and ivory objects looted in 1897 by British troops from the Republic of Benin, as Nigeria was then known, and scattered across the Continent.

Some time after their theft, the plaques originally entered the collection of the British Museum, where they remained until around 1950, when they were sent to the National Museum in Lagos, Nigeria. At some point in the ensuing forty years, they left the National Museum, though they were never formally deaccessioned by that institution, and were purchased by New York collector and modern art dealer Klaus Perls and his wife, Dolly, who gifted them to the Met in 1991. After researching the works with the aid of the British Museum and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), the Met officially deaccessioned them.

“We welcome the rapprochement developing in the museum world, and appreciate the sense of justice displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” said Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s minister of information and culture, in a statement. “Nigeria enjoins other museums to take a cue from this. The art world can be a better place if every possessor of cultural artifacts considers the rights and feelings of the dispossessed.”

The Met, which owns around 160 objects from Benin, has additionally brokered the return of a fourteenth-century brass Ife head taken out of Nigeria around 1938. One of a cache of carved portrait heads made by the Yoruba people and discovered in the course of a construction project, the Ife head was taken out of the country along with several others, and was recently offered for sale to the Met by a private collector who, according to the museum, was “under the misapprehension that legal title to the work had been granted by the NCMM.”

“The retention of these works within Nigeria’s national collections is critical to the well-being of the museum community and to fostering ongoing cooperation and dialogue between the Met and our Nigerian counterparts,” noted Met director Max Hollein in a statement.

All three works are to be shepherded back to Nigeria by NCMM director general Abba Isa Tijani at an as yet undetermined date. “We sincerely appreciate the transparency exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art regarding issues leading to the return of these objects,” said Tijani in a statement in which he additionally emphasized the commission’s willingness to collaborate with institutions on traveling exhibitions featuring the Benin bronzes.