Should the British Museum return its priceless collection of Benin Bronzes? For years, the museum has stood firm in its refusal to hand back artwork looted from the ancient kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria. In doing so, it has defied the trend set by regional institutions in Britain, such as the university of Aberdeen. Earlier this year, the university confirmed that it would repatriate a bust of an Oba, or king of Benin, which it has had since the 1950s. As a result of refusing to take a similar stance, the British Museum has been heavily criticised – but there is a strong case to be made that its approach is the correct one.
Nobody knows for sure how many artefacts were taken by the 1,500 invading soldiers armed with the latest Maxim guns during their punitive raid in 1897. But six months on, the Bronzes were first put on display in London. They caused a sensation. From the start, their artistic value was obvious; several thousand were quickly snapped up, mostly by European museums, but as many as 6,000 ended up in private hands. One of these, an Oba’s head, recently sold for £10 million in 2016, double the price of another one just nine years earlier.
Given the circumstances under which they were acquired, there has naturally been great interest in getting them back. Until recently, this has met with little success. In 1977, when the Nigerian government asked the British Museum for the loan of an ivory mask depicting Queen Idia, mother to the legendary Oba Esigie (1504-50), they were rebuffed on the grounds that it would be subject to different climatic conditions and much greater humidity. This, it was claimed, might cause the ivory to shift and crack.
The Rhodes Must Fall movement, which started at the University of Cape Town in 2015 – and quickly travelled to the University of Oxford – has increased the clamour to return the Bronzes. Germany,