SCOTLAND’S University of Aberdeen has agreed to return a Benin bronze artefact to Nigeria within weeks more than a century after Britain looted the sculptures and auctioned them to Western museums and collectors.
In the first such development of its kind, the university said that the sculpture had left Nigeria in an extremely immoral manner, leading it to reach out to appropriate authorities in 2019 to negotiate its return. This unique bronze piece, which depicts the Oba of Benin, was part of a haul of thousands of religious and cultural treasures taken when British forces looted the Kingdom of Benin in 1897.
According to the institution, which has had the bronze since 1957, the punitive expedition of 1897 was one of the most notorious examples of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with 19th-century European colonial expansion. Thousands of metal and ivory sculptures and carvings were looted by British forces in 1897 during the destruction of Benin City in present-day Nigeria by a British military expedition.
It added that many of the soldiers and administrators involved sold Benin objects to museums or private collectors, while others were later given as gifts to museums or sold at auctions or by art dealers. Professor George Boyne, the principal and vice chancellor of the university, said the decision was in line with Aberdeen’s values as an international, inclusive university, adding that keeping the bronze would have been wrong.
Professor Boyne said: “Over the last 40 years there have been growing calls for the return of such items, which have become symbols of injustice. It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances.
“We therefore decided that an unconditional return is the most appropriate action we can take and are grateful for the close collaboration with our partners in Nigeria.”
Nigeria’s government has welcomed the development saying the reaching out by the University of Aberdeen and eventual release of the priceless antiquity is a step in the right direction. Alhaji Lai Mohamed, Nigeria’s minister of information and culture, said other holders of Nigerian antiquity ought to emulate this to bring fairness to the burning issue of repatriation.
Abba Tijani, the director-general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, added: “The world looks forward to further release of other purloined Nigerian antiquities to the Nigerian nation. Not just Benin bronzes but the Ife, Nok, Esie, Owo and other Nigerian ancient arts.
“We welcome collaborations and agreements of all sorts. We love the fact that others cherish these great art-works. International travelling exhibitions of these art-works is part of what we offer the world.”