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Lehman gift of Benin treasures to Museum of Fine Arts angers Nigeria

Works looted by the British and reassembled by banking heir find permanent home in Boston

Nigeria is demanding the return of a major collection of Benin objects donated in June to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Yusuf Abdallah Usman, the director-general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, told The Art Newspaper that “we hereby place it on record that we demand the return of these looted works”.

Usman says that the Benin bronzes were “taken out illegally on the pretext of spoils of war”. He adds: “If these works of art… are so wonderful to move into the public domain in the US, would it not be more appropriate if they are first returned to their home, where they will be meaningful?” He says that in Nigeria, they could play a role in “explaining the past and shaping the future”.

Malcolm Rogers, the director of the Boston institution, takes a different view. He says that the museum “will make these beautiful objects available to the world at large in a new gallery—in an installation that will further the understanding of the Kingdom of Benin—where they can be studied and appreciated for generations to come.”

The museum announced the acquisition of the 34 West African works of art on 28 June. They were donated by Robert Owen Lehman, the son of the late Robert Lehman, the former head of the Lehman Brothers bank and the donor of the Lehman Wing at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Robert Owen Lehman, who began to buy West African art in the 1950s, assembled the most important collection of Benin objects in private hands. Benin is widely known for having produced the finest sculptures in sub-Saharan Africa from the 15th century onwards.

The museum is open about the looting of the objects in the late 19th century from what is now Nigeria, after the killing of members of a British delegation. The press release states: “The British launched the Punitive Expedition of 1897, sending military forces to the capital and defeating its ruler, Oba Ovonramwen. It is estimated that the British removed more than 4,000 objects from the Benin palace during this military action. Numerous pieces were later sold in Great Britain to defray the costs of the campaign, and were acquired by private collectors and museums in Europe and the US. Many works of art in the Lehman Collection are known to have left Benin in 1897, and the remainder [are] likely [to have] left at the same time.”

The museum has been meticulous about recording what is known of the provenance of the Lehman donation, which comprises 28 Benin bronzes and six ivories—four from Benin and two from Sierra Leone and/or Guinea.

Lehman bought 13 of the bronzes from the sale of objects from the Pitt Rivers Museum in Farnham, Dorset, which closed in the 1960s. The Dorset museum housed works collected by the 19th-century archaeologist Augustus Pitt Rivers, who donated the bulk of his collection to the University of

Oxford to establish the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

What may come as a surprise is that two of the bronzes now in Boston were deaccessioned as “duplicates” by London’s British Museum in 1972

(see sidebar). Lehman bought the remaining works on the art market, with many objects coming from the descendants of British officers who took pieces in 1897.

The claim on the Lehman donation is from the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, the government body that runs Nigeria’s main museums. As we went to press, the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, had not received any correspondence from the commission regarding the acquisition.

Nigeria’s museums have a poor record—one that dates back over many decades—of providing appropriate conservation and security conditions for their collections. Moreover, only a small proportion of their major pieces is normally on display. There is a further complication over Benin objects in that, if the pieces in Boston were to be returned, they should arguably go to the current Oba, or ruler, of Benin, from whose ancestor they were seized in 1897.

The Boston donation does mean that a very important private collection of Benin works of art will become publicly accessible. Rogers told us that “giving the public access to these long-hidden treasures represents an important step in sharing Benin’s artistic and cultural history”. The museum is planning a gallery dedicated to Benin, due to open in late 2013.

British Museum’s Benin bronze swap

Although the British Museum is normally not permitted to deaccession, the institution began to sell Benin bronzes in the 1950s, arguing that they were “duplicates”. Nearly 40 were sold, with many going for less than £100. Prices have since risen enormously: a bronze head deaccessioned in 2007 by Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Art Gallery sold for $4.7m.

The Lehman family and the British Museum, with the approval of the museum’s trustees, agreed to exchange objects in 1972. Lehman wanted two 16th- to 17th-century plaques, one depicting a mudfish and the other a crocodile eating a mudfish. Both works were acquired by the museum in 1898. These have now gone to Boston.

Although the pieces were categorised by the museum as “duplicates”, they are only so in terms of subject matter. Each was individually cast and is somewhat different. Nigel Barley, a former curator at the British Museum, once said that the disposal of the bronzes turned out to be “a curse”, since it is “difficult to exhibit them properly” as they were created as pairs.

Lehman, in return, gave the museum a 16th-century bronze figure of a horseman from the Lower Niger area. The work has not been displayed in the museum since the opening of the Sainsbury African Galleries in 2001. The British Museum has not deaccessioned any Benin bronzes since the swap with Lehman.

Originally appeared in The Art Newspaper as 'Lehman gift angers Nigeria'