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IDIA MASK AUCTION: FACTS, FICTION BEHIND THE CANCELLATION

By Kwame Opoku
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THE cancellation notice of the auction of Queen-Mother Idia mask on December 4, 2010 by Sotheby's could not have been shorter: '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consigned by the descendants of Lionel Galway which Sotheby's had announced for auction in February 2011 have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the consignors.' This short notice is a great contrast to the enthusiastic announcement of the proposed auction where the excellent artistry of the hip mask was underlined. 'All of the ivory masks are widely recognized for the quality of their craftsmanship, for the enormous scale of Benin's artistic achievement and for their importance in the field of African art.'

But what more does the cancellation tell us? Very little except that the proposed auction will not take place as announced. Will the auction take place sometime in the future and somewhere else other than at Sotheby's? Will the mask be silently passed on to one of the so-called 'universal museums' without our knowing.

It is stated that the Benin objects 'have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the consignors' Did the 'owners' withdraw because of the protests from Nigeria Liberty Forum and others, and hope to present them at a future date or have they arrived at the conclusion that it is wrong to sell the cultural property of others, especially in a case like this where the object has been acquired by an ancestor in a violent attack of the owners?

Are they prepared to renounce their alleged rights to these blood artefacts? Did the consignors realize that the sale of such blood artefacts can only revive wounds that may still be felt by the successors of those killed in the process of invasion? Do the Galways intend to return the Queen-Idia mask and the other artefacts to the people of Benin or simply keep them out of  public sight as they have done twice after exhibitions in 1947 – 'Ancient Benin' and 1951 – 'Traditional Sculpture from the Colonies' ?

Sotheby's and the Galways may have been amazed by the massive public outcry at the announcement of the proposed auction.   The timing of the proposed auction may have been arbitrarily chosen but it is noteworthy that a week or so before, Sotheby's had auctioned an African artefact, a Luba female caryatid stool, for $7.1 million without any problem. This may have encouraged them to think it was the right time to make a huge profit on African artefacts.

The history of that piece is different from that of the Benin pieces that are heavily charged with sentiments and emotions. Moreover, the Queen-Mother Idia hip mask has become a Pan-African symbol and thus invested with a symbolism and significance that extend far beyond the boundaries of Benin and Nigeria.

But Sotheby's and the Galway successors need not have been surprised since protest at the possession of Benin Bronzes by Western museums and private collections has a long history.

Various Nigerian governments and parliaments have called for the return of these objects. When a museum was to be opened in Benin City, Ekpo Eyo, on behalf of Nigeria made several requests to all the museums holding Benin objects to return a few of them.  Not a single object was returned and the museum was opened with photographs of some of the Benin Bronzes:

'By the end of the 1960s, the price of Benin works had soared so high that the Federal Government of Nigeria was in no mood to contemplate buying them. When, therefore a National Museum was planned for Benin City in 1968, we were faced with the problem of finding exhibits that would be shown to reflect the position that Benin holds in the world of art history. A few unimportant objects which were kept in the old local authority museum in Benin were transferred to the new museum and a few more objects were brought in from Lagos. Still the museum was 'empty'. We tried using casts and photographs to fill gaps but the desired effect was unachievable. We therefore thought of making an appeal to the world for loans or return of some works so that Benin

might also be to show its own works at least to its own people. We tabled a draft resolution at the General Assembly of the International Council of Museums (ICOM) which met in France in 1968, appealing for donations of one or two pieces from those museums which have large stocks of Benin works. The resolution was modified to make it read like a general appeal for restitution or return and then adopted. When we returned to Nigeria, we circulated the adopted resolution to the embassies and high commissions of countries we know to have large Benin holdings but up till now we have received no reaction from any quarters and the Benin Museum stays 'empty'.

In 2000, the Benin Royal Family sent a petition to the British Parliament for the restitution of the Benin artefacts.

In addition to protests from Benin Royal Family over the ages, the late Bernie Grant, Member of the British Parliament and Chair of the African Reparations Movement (UK), regularly protested against the continued illegal detention of the Benin Bronzes.

During the 2007 travelling exhibition, – BENIN – KINGS AND RITUALS, COURT ARTS FROM NIGERIA, the present Oba, His Majesty Oba Erediauwa of Benin, great grandson of Oba Ovonramwen, in whose reign the Benin bronzes were looted by the British in 1897, made again in the foreword to the catalogue of the exhibition a plea for the return of some of the Benin Bronzes: 'We are pleased to participate in this exhibition. It links us, nostalgically, with our past. As you put this past on show today, it is our prayer that the people and government of Austria will show humaneness and magnanimity and return to us some of these objects which found their way to your country.'

Few pages later in the same catalogue,   followed the response of four museum directors of Western countries in a preface which in its eurocentricism, arrogance, immorality and cynicism is only surpassed perhaps by the infamous Declaration on the Value and Importance of Universal Museums (2002). They rejected the demand for return of the Benin Bronzes and advised that the Nigerian should forget the past and look onto the future.

Again in 2007, Professor Tunde Babawale, Director of the CBACC, Lagos, wrote to Neil MacGregor, Director of the British Museum, stating that

'The essence of this letter is to request that the British Museum, safely return/hand over the original 16th century Ivory Mask which was last worn by King Ovoramwen Nogbasi of the ancient Benin Empire before he was exiled by Britain.

The Ivory Mask is the official Emblem for FESTAC AND A UNIFICATION SYMBOL FOR Nigerians and Black people worldwide. The mask is also of great significance to us as Africans.'

MacGregor's reply to Babawale does not address the main issue of the return of the mask which was said to be the essence of his letter. Instead, he writes:

'Let me assure you that the British Museum appreciates the significance of the Benin material in the collections for Nigeria, Africa and the world, and wishes to make it better understood and more accessible in Africa and worldwide. To this end, we are currently engaged in a new dialogue with the National Commission on Museums and Monuments in Nigeria'.

Both letters of Babawale and MacGregor are reproduced in Annex V below. It is remarkable that the British Museum denies to Nigeria and Africa the stolen/looted Benin mask in order 'to make it better understood and made accessible in Africa and worldwide.' The reader must judge for himself or herself the value of such reasoning which flies in the face of truth and common sense,

In 2008, a formal request was sent on behalf of the Benin Royal Family to the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum, Chicago for the return of some of the Benin Bronzes but to no avail. Not even a letter of acknowledgement was sent by the venerable institutions to the Benin Royal Family. There are people who praise the artistry of Benin but do not even feel obliged to extend the most elementary courtesy to the Benin Monarchy the presence of which generated the looted artefacts they are detaining.

The United Nations, UNESCO and ICOM (International Council of Museums) as well as several international conferences have urged the holders of artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes to return some to their countries of origin but with no success.

It is thus clear that there is a long history of protest and opposition to the holding of   'blood artefacts' which were obtained at the cost of loss of several lives. Sotheby's and the consignors could therefore not have been totally surprised at the protest. However, they might have been overwhelmed by the extent of the world-wide protests. Westerners have been misled by many false prophets proclaiming the right and duty of the West to hold on to the blood artefacts. This has led to turning a deaf ear to requests for restitution and to non-consideration of such demands. This has removed any moral inhibitions people may have had with respect to dealing with looted/stolen artefacts of others. But times have changed and so must potential sellers and auction houses also change.

The wind is now blowing in favour of restitution. France has recently restored Korean manuscripts looted in 1866; Yale University has returned Peruvian artefacts that had been in the USA since 1912; and Egypt has recovered over the last decade some 5000 artefacts wrongfully taken from the country. Several American museums and universities have returned looted artefacts to Italy. The Brooklyn Museum is  about  to return some 4,500 pre-Columbian artifacts taken from Costa Rica  a century ago even though Costa Rica has not asked for them and the possession by the museum appears to be legal. China, Egypt, Greece, Peru, Nigeria and other states have established a conference to press for cases of restitution and submitted lists of objects to be returned to their countries of origin. Henceforth, all are aware of the demand of certain countries for the return of their looted artefacts and one cannot continue to argue, as some in Western capitals are wont to, that there have been no requests for restitution.

The way forward to resolving cultural property disputes, as we have continued to argue, is to recognize that there is something wrong in the present situation where the Ethnology Museum of Berlin, or the British Museum or the Ethnology Museum, Vienna have more Benin Bronzes than  Benin itself. Berlin, for example has 580 Benin artefacts. What are the Germans doing with so many Benin artefacts  when the Benin people (Edo)  have pleading in vain for years to get some of them back?

Recognition of the present imbalance in possessions of African cultural objects should lead to negotiations for returning some of them.  We should, in principle, proceed first  by dialogue and failing that, judicial process. However, Western museums and their governments have not shown themselves to be very keen on dialogue, despite all pretence to the contrary. Indeed, leading museum directors in London, Chicago, New York and Vienna have shown reluctance to discuss and resentment at the very mention of the idea of discussing restitution of looted cultural artefacts.

Those calling for their return are considered unreasonable but not those refusing to discuss even the possibility of restitution. It seems that it is the lack of pressure to bear on Western museums and their governments that allows them to get away with arguments and defences that no student would dare to present to professors without the risk of being thrown out of the university.

Instead of seeking ways to accommodate the demands of Africans for the return of their artefacts, leading Western museum directors have been busy inventing theories and stories which end up by supporting their retention of looted African artefacts. They argue that our looted artefacts belong to the heritage of human kind and thus their location in Western museums is justifiable in the interest of humankind. But the 'universalism' preached by the Westerners is a 'European Universalism' as opposed to true 'universal Universalism' which would include all humankind and work against the domination of one group by another.  Western museum directors and their supporters have shown that they are not yet ready for such a world: they have hijacked the cultural artefacts of others and refuse to return any.

Hence we have situations such as the proposed sale by successors of some of those who invaded Benin in 1897, killing many women and children, deposing the king, Oba Ovonramwen and setting Benin City on fire, just as they had done in Asante (Ghana) in 1874. Similar actions had also been carried on in Magdala, (Ethiopia) and in Beijing, (China). None of those involved in such actions seems to have any bad conscience. Indeed, they think they are doing us a great favour by keeping our artefacts with them. Unfortunately, some Africans who should know better seem to buy this dishonest argument.

But in all the discussions on the abortive auction of the Queen-Mother Idia mask as well as in the restitution debates, one major actor is conspicuously absent or ignored by some participants, namely, the British Government.

Entitled Reflections on the abortive Queen-mother Idia Mask auction: Tactical withdrawal or decision of principle, this article is culled from modern Ghana website.

Disclaimer: "The views/contents expressed in this article are the sole responsibility of Kwame Opoku and do not necessarily reflect those of The Nigerian Voice. The Nigerian Voice will not be responsible or liable for any inaccurate or incorrect statements contained in this article."