Benin Bronzes: New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art to return three African artworks to Nigeria

Two 16th-century brass plaques and a fourth-century brass Ife head will be returned to Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments

Plaque - Junior Court Official with Sword. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
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The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City announced it will return three works of art to Nigeria. Two 16th-century brass plaques produced at the Court of Benin will come from the museum's vast collection, while it has also brokered the return of a third work, a 14th-century brass Ife head, that had been offered for sale.

The first two works, called Warrior Chief and Junior Court Official, were among those removed from the Royal Palace in 1897 during the British military occupation of Benin, now Nigeria, according to the museum. They were in the British Museum's collection from 1898 to 1950, before it transferred these two plaques, and 24 others, to the National Museum in Lagos.

Although they were never deaccessioned from the Nigerian institution, the plaques then entered the art market at an unknown date and under "unclear circumstances", eventually falling into the hands of New York collector Klaus Perls, and his wife, who gave their large collection of Benin works to the Met in 1991. There, they were researched, published in print and online, and exhibited internationally.

The Met and British Museum have collaborated on research over the past year, before the former reached out to the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, to seek clarity on the works’ status. That is when it was decided they should be returned to Nigeria.

Warrior Chief. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
'Warrior Chief'. Courtesy The Metropolitan Museum of Art

The Met has now deaccessioned these pieces and will return them to the NCMM’s director general, professor Abba Isa Tijani, when he is able to travel to New York.

This includes the Ife Head, which came from the Wunmonije Compound in Nigeria. A collector had offered to sell it to The Met, believing the legal title of the work had been given by the NCMM, but The Met determined this was not the case.

“The Met is pleased to have initiated the return of these works and is committed to transparency and the responsible collecting of cultural property,” reads a statement.

The art world can be a better place if every possessor of cultural artefacts considers the rights and feelings of the dispossessed

"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," said Max Hollein, director of the Met.

It is being reported that the pieces will likely go to the Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, planned to open in 2025, for which the Met says it is pleased to be a collaborative partner.

Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture of Nigeria, was pleased with the decision. “Nigeria enjoins other museums to take a cue from this. The art world can be a better place if every possessor of cultural artefacts considers the rights and feelings of the dispossessed.”

The Met has a vast collection of Benin artefacts and works of art, numbering more than 150, and is committed to sharing each piece's history. It is also participating in the Digital Benin project, an international platform designed to expand documentation of histories concerning these particular works.

"There are great opportunities for collaborations of all sorts, including travelling exhibitions with many of these exquisite objects," Tijani said. "The NCMM looks forward to a future of joint activities with The Met. We shall be working together along with other colleagues on the Digital Benin project and several other worthy initiatives to be discussed."

Journalist Barnaby Phillips, author of new book Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes, commented on the move to NPR. "The Met is not saying these objects were stolen, so morally, legally, we've decided to give them back … They [the Met] want to be seen as willing and helpful and good partners to Nigeria."