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Benin mask withdrawn from Sotheby's auction

Cancellation follows accusations that the object was looted, although no formal claim has been made

The Benin ivory mask due to go on sale at Sotheby’s, London, on 17 February has been withdrawn. Estimated at £3.5m-£4.5m, it could have fetched a record auction price for an African work of art (The Art Newspaper website, 22 December 2010).

Four days after the 20 December announcement, the sale was cancelled. Sotheby’s explained: “The Benin ivory pendant mask and other items consigned by the descendants of Lionel Galway which Sotheby’s had announced for auction in February 2011 have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the consignors.” The consignors declined to comment.

The cancellation may be a result of escalating protests over the loss of Benin artefacts during Britain’s 1897 Punitive Expedition. Abdul Oroh, a commissioner for culture and tourism for Edo state, whose capital is Benin City, said that “the mask was stolen” and claims “it remains a product of crime”.

Arguably, any request for the Edo mask’s return would have to come from Oba Erediauwa, whose great-grandfather suffered the loss, but more than a century later this would have no legal basis in the UK. No formal claim has been made by the Edo state, the Nigerian federal government or the Oba (king) of Benin, and Erediauwa has so far relied on moral pressure.

At the opening of an exhibition of Benin art at Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum in 2007, he said “it is our prayer that the people and the government of Austria will show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.”

The ivory mask at Sotheby’s was being sold by the descendants of Sir Henry Lionel Galway, a senior colonial officer in Nigeria who had participated in the Punitive Expedition. The 16th-century mask later passed to his wife Marie and on her death in 1963 to their daughter, whose descendants now wish to sell it.

Sotheby’s had braced itself for possible protests, but an important bronze head of an Oba had been sold for $4.7m at its New York branch on 17 May 2007 with few problems. However, the ivory mask is much rarer, and (unlike the bronzes) there are no examples in Nigerian museums.

The cancelled auction represents a great loss for scholars, since the rare ivory mask is likely to remain with the family or be quietly sold off in a private deal. It is therefore expected to remain inaccessible from view and the detailed catalogue entry prepared by Sotheby’s specialists will remain unpublished.

The withdrawal is also likely to affect the whole market for Benin art. As Christian Elwes, of London dealer Entwistle, explained: “Consignors are less likely to go to auction houses, so the market will move away from the more public platform.”

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Benin mask withdrawn from auction'