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Benin bronze given to Queen was taken from Nigerian museum

By Louise Jury, Media Correspondent-The Independent

A bronze head that was given to the Queen by the Nigerian government nearly 30 years ago has been identified as an original 400-year-old sculpture that had been taken from the national museum in Lagos.

A bronze head that was given to the Queen by the Nigerian government nearly 30 years ago has been identified as an original 400-year-old sculpture that had been taken from the national museum in Lagos.

The revelation that the former president General Yakuba Gowon took an antiquity from a national collection will embarrass Nigeria, which has long argued that Benin bronzes held in British museums were looted and should be repatriated.

The work was thought by Buckingham Palace curators to be a replica of the ancient Benin bronzes for which Nigeria is famous and which are still reproduced to high standards by craftsmen. But an arts journalist, Martin Bailey, noticed the work in an exhibition of state gifts open to the public at Buckingham Palace and thought it might be original.

Experts from the British Museum and the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in London have now confirmed that the sculpture dates from about 1600 – and was formerly held in the museum in Lagos until it was presented to the Queen.

Professor John Picton of SOAS was once a curator at the Lagos museum and was privately told the true history of the Queen's gift soon after it was taken. In 1973, General Gowon was invited to Britain and was anxious to bring a gift to say thank you for British support during the Biafran civil war. He commissioned a replica Benin bronze but was disappointed with the result. Just before his departure, he telephoned Ekpo Eyo, director of the museum, to say he was coming to choose a gift.

Professor Picton told Mr Bailey, who writes for The Art newspaper: "Dr Eyo hurried to the museum and managed to remove a few of the finest unique items and put them in the store. General Gowon soon arrived, he took one of the bronzes from the display. Dr Eyo was horrified, because it was quite improper for the state to be raiding the museum."

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