Denver Art Museum has a plundered “Benin Bronze.” Will they give it back?

British troops in 1897 mounted a violent, retaliatory raid on the Kingdom of Benin, in what’s now southern Nigeria, looting and burning the royal palace and sending the oba, or king, into exile. The British confiscated all the royal treasures from their colonial subjects, giving some to officers but taking most to a London auction to help pay for the expedition.

Those rare “Benin Bronzes” over the past century were dispersed to hundreds of institutions around the world — including the Denver Art Museum, where a 16th- or 17th-century bronze plaque is one of 11 items in the museum’s collection originating from the former Kingdom of Benin.

Now, amid a worldwide reckoning over colonial history and a racial justice movement, pressure is mounting for art collections such as Denver’s to give the relics back to their rightful owners. European institutions have led the charge, pledging to return Benin Bronzes to help Africa rebuild lost art collections after centuries of plundering, but American collections have been slower to get on board.

“It’s not just taking the artwork that was an act of war,” said Dan Hicks, a British curator and professor whose book, “The Brutish Museums: the Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution“, makes the case for repatriating the artifacts to Nigeria. “The continued display of these items in these museums represents for many an enduring act of violence.”

The Denver Art Museum has not displayed any of its Benin pieces in years, museum officials said in a statement, and last year began working with experts “so we could better understand their complete provenance.”

“At this time, none of these objects are on view, and the museum has not been contacted by Nigeria with queries for information or with requests for the objects’ return,” according to the statement.

The debate over the Benin Bronzes comes as the Denver Art Museum grapples with the history of its own collection. Earlier this month, the museum voluntarily gave up four Cambodian antiquities after federal authorities moved to seize the items. The U.S. Department of Justice alleged that the relics — sold to the museum by Douglas Latchford, who was indicted in 2019 for trafficking looted antiquities — were plundered from the southeast Asian nation.

How Denver got its Benin Bronze

Benin Bronzes are a bit of a misnomer — they’re neither uniformly bronze nor from the country of Benin (the former Kingdom of Benin sits in southern Nigeria). The artifacts include everything from carved elephant tusks to ivory statues and wooden heads — in addition to the iconic bronze plaques such as the one in the Denver Art Museum.

“The royal palace of the oba or king of Benin was adorned with hundreds of elaborately ornamented plaques, such as this one, telling the story of court life,” reads the plaque’s description on the Denver Art Museum’s website. “Cast in the lost wax technique by a highly skilled artisan, this plaque has the figure of a court nobleman or possibly a chief showing details of his regalia, including his helmet, an elaborate coral necklace, embroidered skirt, belt, and anklets.”

The museum acquired the plaque in 1955 from the Carlebach Gallery in New York City. The piece was “taken” in 1897 by Sir Ralph Moor — who led the African region’s British protectorate and the Benin City raid — from the Kingdom of Benin and sent to the British Foreign Service office collection, according to the “known provenance” section of the item’s webpage, which traces its history and acquisition.

The plaque is number 60 of the 300 taken by Moor and displayed initially in the British Museum, according to Hicks, the British curator. About 100 of those were variously sold off or given away.

The bronze plaque is the only object of the 11 in the Denver Art Museum that “we can confirm was removed from the Kingdom by the British Foreign Service in 1897,” museum officials said.

In addition to taking a closer look at its Benin collection last year, museum staff is also participating in a project called Digital Benin, a German-led initiative that will “will bring together photographs, oral histories, and rich documentation material from collections worldwide to provide a long-requested overview of the royal artworks looted in the 19th century,” the project’s website states. It plans to launch in 2022.

Benin Bronzes can be found in collections in England and Germany, New York and California. And they can fetch significant prices: One Benin Bronze — a head of an oba — sold in 2007 for $4.74 million.

The Sarr-Savoy report

The discussion surrounding plundered art during colonial times received a jolt in 2017 when Emmanuel Macron, the French president, told a group of students in Burkina Faso that returning African artifacts housed in his home country would become a “top priority.”

“I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France,” Macron said. “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”

Macron commissioned a report and the authors recommended in 2018 that objects removed and sent to mainland France without the consent of their countries of origin be permanently returned — if the country of origin asks for them.

The numbers behind colonial art plundering are startling: Some 90% to 95% of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside the continent by major museums, experts estimated in the French report.

Known as the Sarr-Savoy report, it set off a domino effect across Europe and, eventually, the United States.

Germany announced in April that it will begin returning about 1,100 Benin Bronzes from its museums back to Nigeria. A Dutch committee last year recommended the unconditional return of objects to former colonies of the Netherlands.

Last month, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C., removed 10 Benin Bronze pieces from display and committed to repatriating them to Nigeria.

“We recognize the trauma, violence, and loss such displays of stolen artistic and cultural heritage can inflict on the victims of those crimes, their descendants, and broader communities,” the museum said on its website.

Repatriating items should be taken on a “case-by-case approach,” Hicks said. “We’re not talking about emptying museums and sending everything back. It’s about being open to giving back when asked.”

But artwork such as the Benin Bronze housed in Denver is the “anthropology of that time,” he said. “They’re being used to tell a story of cultural supremacy which has no place in what we think of art museums today.”

In an essay titled “Give Us Back What Our Ancestors Made,” Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor writes of the dejection he felt seeing these masterful works — iconic displays of his culture — hanging in staid British museums.

“Generations of Africans have already lost incalculable history and cultural reference points because of the absence of some of the best artworks created on the continent,” Ehikhamenor wrote. “We shouldn’t have to ask, over and over, to get back what is ours.”

Nigeria plans to open a museum in Benin City in 2023 with at least 300 Benin Bronzes, populated mainly with pieces returning from major European collections.

“I want people to be able to understand their past and see who we were,” Godwin Obaseki, governor of Edo State, home to Benin City, told the New York Times.

America taking its time

While European institutions have taken the lead on repatriating artifacts, American collections have “been quite slow to respond to this,” said Rashida Bumbray, director of culture and art for the Open Society Foundations, a global grantmaking network, which last year pledged $15 million toward bringing cultural objects back to Africa.

The Smithsonian’s announcement “changes the game,” Bumbray said, but “the U.S. is falling behind.”

Many museums have been slow to respond to demands for greater transparency in their acquisition practices and for stricter ethical practices, said Elizabeth Campbell, a University of Denver professor who runs the school’s Center for Art Collection Ethics.

“Provenance research is very expensive, laborious, time consuming and it has not been prioritized,” Campbell said. “Many museums are investing in acquisition and not research. We hope that’s changing as they face better scrutiny.”

The challenge with provenance research, according to a Denver Art Museum list of frequently asked questions, “is capacity and time as we have more than 70,000 works in our collection.” A multi-departmental provenance committee meets biweekly to discuss provenance projects, the museum stated.

The Denver Art Museum has faced other repatriation efforts for pieces in its collection.

The museum gave up the four Cambodian antiquities connected to Latchford, and are examining two more pieces from Thailand connected with the now-deceased art dealer. The museum in September also repatriated a Nepalese statue, and in 2016 returned a statue to Cambodia that had been looted during its tumultuous civil war in the 1970s.

There’s precedent now for institutions to give back Benin Bronzes, Hicks said, pointing to Germany as a global leader.

“The question now,” he said, “will this be led from Denver as well?”

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