Days after Berlin’s Humboldt Forum museum said it was pursuing the return of its Benin Bronzes, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland said it would repatriate to Nigeria a sculpture from that same cache of artworks, which was looted by British troops during the 19th century and dispersed across Europe.
The work is one of thousands that were taken in 1897 from the kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria, and other similar works have ended up in the collections of august European institutions such as the British Museum in London and the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris. No other institution has committed to repatriating any of its Benin Bronzes, making the University of Aberdeen the first to do so. But the University of Aberdeen is sending back a single artwork, whereas the Humboldt Forum, the British Museum, and others own hundreds of objects each from the Benin Bronzes group.
In a release, the university that it had acquired the sculpture in 1957 at an auction—a means that Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections at the school, characterized as “extremely immoral.” The University of Aberdeen’s sculpture depicts the ruler of Benin, known as the Oba.
[Read about 20 works of art that have been subject to claims of looting, theft, and plundering.]
George Boyne, the university’s principal and vice-chancellor, said in statement, “It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances. We therefore decided that an unconditional return is the most appropriate action we can take, and are grateful for the close collaboration with our partners in Nigeria.”
The news comes days after the newly inaugurated Humboldt Forum, a consortium of various German institutions, said it would not show any of 530 Benin Bronzes owned by Berlin’s Ethnological Museum in its displays. In their places, there will be replicas or blank spaces. The museum has begun pursuing the process of returning the Benin Bronzes, though the final decision on whether the objects can be returned to Nigeria will be in the hands of Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages the Ethnological Museum’s collection.
The Benin Bronzes have been considered a symbol of a colonial conquest by those who call on museums to return plundered art. Nigerians have been seeking the return of the Benin Bronzes for decades.
When the university sends its work back, the sculpture could appear at the Edo Museum of West African Art, a new institution that will house the Benin Bronzes upon their return. It is currently slated to open in 2025 in Benin City, Nigeria.
Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture of Nigeria, said in a statement, “The reaching out by the University of Aberdeen and eventual release of the priceless antiquity is a step in the right direction. Other holders of Nigerian antiquity ought to emulate this to bring fairness to the burning issue of repatriation.”