Friday 13 July 2012

Donation of Benin artefacts to a U.S. museum: Nigerian authority responds

By Tajudeen Sowole

The National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) has challenged the legitimacy claims of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston U.S., which, few weeks ago received 32 works of Benin origin from the heir of one of the beneficiaries of the infamous 1897 Benin punitive expedition.

The works, which include 28 bronzes and six ivories were donated to the Boston museum by Mr. Robert Owen Lehman, a great-grandson of founder of Lehman Brothers. According to sources, the senior Lehman bought the works from dealers and at auctions from the 1950s through the ’70s.

In his response, the Director-General of NCMM, Mallam Yusuf Abdallah Usman faulted Museum of Fine Arts, Boston for its claim that the donation met all legal standards.

When the Boston museum received the works, a senior curator of African and Oceanic Art of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston museum, Christraud Geary stated: “We have looked at the legal situation here at the museum and we’ve come to the conclusion that the gift meets all of our standards.” 

She noted there was no official claims for the works, and Rogers agreed there has been no claim made.
One of the Lehman's donations, a commemorative Head of Benin Oba (king), late 16th Century.
In apparent response, Usman stated that the NCMM opposed the stance of the Museum of Fine Art. He stressed that "objects taken illegally should be returned to their rightful owners and in this case the people of Nigeria.  No one can give objective and true history of their patrimony however much they tried than the true owners."

The works are scheduled to go on display at the museum in late 2013, However, Usman argued that the works should be returned to Nigeria "where they will be meaningful and happy to thrive helping to define reality for the people, explaining the past and shaping the future."

While being ecstatic about the donation, the Boston museum recalled, “many works of art in the Lehman Collection are known to have left Benin in 1897, and the remainder likely left at the same time. A number of these appear in publications from 1900 onwards,” the museum added, saying the works “have not been seen by the public for several decades.”

The NCMM boss said: "For the avoidance of doubt we hereby place it on record that we demand, as we have always done, the return of these looted works and all stolen, removed or looted artifacts from Nigeria under whatever guise.
"We wish to also call on the management of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, US to as a matter of self respect return the 32 works to Nigeria, the rightful owners forthwith."

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