A Scottish university is to become one of the first western institutions to return a Benin bronze to Nigeria more than 120 years after British soldiers stole the sculptures in one of the most notorious acts of looting during 19th-century European colonial expansion.
The sculpture of an oba, or ruler, was taken in 1897 along with thousands of other pieces during the destruction of Benin City in modern-day Nigeria by a British expeditionary force. The attack left many dead. Many of the pieces were sold at auction and are held in collections around the world.
The University of Aberdeen bought the piece at auction in 1957 but decided to return the sculpture after a review concluded it had been taken under “extremely immoral” circumstances. It has not been on public display for several decades, officials said.
“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances,” said George Boyne, the university’s vice-chancellor.
The sculpture was brought back to the UK and at one point owned by a collector and displayed in London in the 1930s before it was bought by the university, said Neil Curtis, Aberdeen’s head of museums and special collections.
It will be returned within weeks and is expected to form part of the collection in a new museum on the site of the destroyed palace, which is expected to be built by 2025.
Benin City was the centre of a powerful kingdom of the Edo people that was renowned for its high-quality metalwork from at least the 17th century.
Britain's ambitions to trade and expand its empire in Africa brought it into conflict with the kingdom – then separate from British-ruled Nigeria – where a military skirmish led to a full, armed intervention during which the royal palace was ransacked, burnt to the ground and the Oba exiled. Nigeria achieved independence from British colonial control only in 1960.
For the past 40 years, museums around the world have been reassessing the future of the Benin bronzes, which are seen as symbols of colonial injustice.
The British Museum, which holds hundreds of the sculptures, has with several other museums formed a Benin Dialogue Group to discuss displaying them in Benin City, some officially on loan. It said discussions are ongoing.
Germany is in talks to send back 440 Benin bronzes as early as the autumn, according to newspaper reports, while the University of Cambridge's Jesus College said it had finalised approvals in December to return another bronze. US museums agreed to return two more.
"In 1957 they obviously felt that this was a work of art that could be bought in the art market," Mr Curtis said. "Whereas now we are feeling this is basically looted, stolen property and something that shouldn't be in the museum's collection."
Prof Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said the importance of displaying the bronze in Nigeria for the first time in more than 120 years was inexpressible.
"It's part of our identity, part of our heritage ... which has been taken away from us for many years," he said.