You may be aware of the history of the British raid of the Kingdom of Benin that took place in 1897, historically called a “punitive expedition,” resulting in the loss of hundreds of lives and removal of artifacts and cultural history. This Smarthistory piece offers a good primer of the incident, which was further illuminated in 2020 with the publication of the book The Brutish Museums, by author and University of Oxford scholar, Dan Hicks. When published, the book drove a shockwave through the museum community, as it was the first account that used diaries and personal accounts detailing the looting of the culture of Benin. The book transformed our collective understanding of what took place in the small kingdom that is part of present-day Nigeria.
In August 2020, the Denver Art Museum began examining provenance information on the objects in its collection from the Kingdom of Benin as new details emerged. The DAM is home to 11 artworks from the Kingdom of Benin, and two of those works were created before the 1897 raid—meaning they were likely in the country during the time of the raid. These two pieces, a bronze plaque depicting a human figure, and a small bronze pendant or belt mask, were the focus of the curatorial and provenance research staff at the DAM. Investigation into the bronze plaque included outreach to museum colleagues in the United Kingdom to get access to records unknown to us previously.
Facts from those conversations and documents that were shared with us in 2023 enabled the museum to confirm that the plaque was indeed looted during the nineteenth-century raid. Immediately following that discovery, the plaque was formally deaccessioned (removed) from the collection by a vote of our Board of Trustees in early 2023. While we have received no claims for the object’s return, museum staff have contacted our counterparts overseas to determine next steps to return this work to its rightful home. I am indebted to Professor Hicks for helping me make connections with colleagues around the globe who provided access to archives and documents that clarified the plaque’s provenance.
Research into the second piece, a pendant or belt mask, continues. At this time, the museum has confirmed facts that make clear that the small bronze piece came to the museum in the 1950s by exchange with The Penn Museum, with documented provenance records going back to the 1910s. Unlike the bronze plaque that was clearly taken during the 1897 raid—it is marked with a catalog number that corresponds to inventory lists from that time and was photographed after its arrival in the UK—the pendant/belt mask is “of the type” that may have been taken. This means that other, similar, masks were taken during the raid; however, we cannot yet confirm this one was taken at that time.
Researching the history of artworks proactively is a top priority for the museum and posting objects in our collection on public websites and databases, including known provenance, is a way to be transparent about the museum’s holdings and to gather new facts from outside parties who may have additional information. Old photographs, catalogs, out-of-print books, and other ephemera held by people around the world can also provide great clues into an artwork’s story.
In 2021, the Denver Art Museum signed on to be an active participant in the Digital Benin project, which helps identify facts about objects linked to the 1897 raid, as well as connecting people from the Kingdom of Benin with their heritage unrelated to the raid. In addition to increasing awareness about what objects from Benin are in public and private collections and where they are located, it is a way to build bridges and facilitate access. Gathering facts is an incredibly important part of this process, because when a work is repatriated or restituted, it is important the object goes to the rightful nation or owner.
Working together with international colleagues and originating communities is about more than sharing information on looted objects. The DAM provided information about all 11 works from the Kingdom of Benin to the Digital Benin project, and they chose three to include in their database. One, a carved wood relief panel was included because Digital Benin’s advisors wanted to share this work attributed to the artist Chief Ovia Idah (b.1908–d.1968) or from his school (other artists trained by Idah). Chief Idah served as a page to Oba Eweka II of Benin (“Oba” is the title given to the traditional ruler of the Kingdom of Benin). This attribution was made by Rowland Ọlá Abíọ́dún, a Nigerian-American professor at Amherst College in 2000 when visiting the DAM’s collections. Alas, not everyone can travel to see such works. Providing digital access to this work to community members and researchers around the world is an opportunity that came from our participation in the Digital Benin project.
As for the other two works posted to Digital Benin, next steps will be to continue to search for additional facts about the ownership history of the belt mask, and navigate some new developments happening overseas with respect to repatriating artworks to the Kingdom of Benin. In its article “Who Owns the Benin Bronzes? The Answer Just Got More Complicated,” The New York Times outlined new developments between the government of Nigeria and the current Oba of the Kingdom of Benin leading to new questions about to whom the pieces should be returned. These developments have led to questions about legal ownership. We know for a fact that the bronze plaque does not belong to the DAM, and we’re working with officials overseas and in the museum field to determine exactly to whom it should be sent. We are prepared to act without delay.
The museum will continue to keep the community updated on this and other Provenance Research projects. Please keep an eye on our Provenance page for additional details.