Courtesy of the Denver Art Museum
The royal palace of Benin was adorned with hundreds of elaborately ornamented plaques, such as this one. It was taken from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 and sent to the British Foreign Service office collection. The Denver Art Museum purchased the plaque from the Carlebach Gallery in New York in 1955.
The Denver Art Museum has formally removed a looted Benin plaque from its collection — the first step toward repatriating a prized relic that the British plundered in West Africa more than a century ago.
The move to “deaccession,” or remove, the item from the museum’s collection earlier this month comes as collections around the globe are reexamining, and outright returning, items in their possession that were pillaged during colonial rule.
Denver’s storied art museum in 1955 acquired the 16th- or 17th-century bronze plaque from the Carlebach Gallery in New York. It’s one of the so-called “Benin Bronzes” that once adorned the royal palace of the oba, or king, of Benin in what’s now southern Nigeria.
“Cast in the lost wax technique by a highly skilled artisan, this plaque has the figure of a court nobleman or possibly a chief showing details of his regalia, including his helmet, an elaborate coral necklace, embroidered skirt, belt and anklets,” the museum says on its website.
In November, the museum told The Denver Post that it had not displayed the plaque for years, and was working with experts to understand its complete provenance, or ownership history. But the museum at the time declined to formally remove the item from its collection or repatriate it to Nigeria.
Now, as other American institutions are facing pressure to return Benin Bronzes to their rightful owners, museum officials in Denver decided to take the object out of the museum’s collection.
The art institution is also looking into a small bronze pendant or belt mask in the “Royal Court Style” in its collection that would have put it in the Kingdom of Benin during the 1897 British raid. That research is ongoing.
“The museum will continue to act in good faith as a global partner on matters of art repatriation and restitution,” Andy Sinclair, a museum spokesperson, said in an email. “To date, the museum has not been contacted by anyone in Nigeria about these works or requests for their return.”
During the 1897 retaliatory offensive by British forces, officers confiscated scores of royal treasures from Benin’s colonial subjects. Some went to officers who took part in the raid, but most went to a London auction to help pay for the expedition.
Over the past century, those rare Benin Bronzes were dispersed to hundreds of institutions around the world — from Denver to New York to Germany.
But now these same institutions are rethinking the ethics of displaying works they know to be plundered — a seismic shift in the art world that comes amid a worldwide reckoning over racial injustice and a reexamining of colonial rule.
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European collections in recent years have begun to return these objects to Nigeria. The West African nation is planning to open a museum next year to showcase its long-lost relics.
American museums, however, have been slower to respond to these repatriation calls.
The Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., in a watershed moment, agreed in March to return its collection of 39 Benin Kingdom Court Style artworks to Nigeria — a move that could propel other American institutions to follow suit.
A Washington Post survey of American art museums last week found 56 institutions with Benin pieces in their collection. At least 16 said they are engaged in the repatriating process and five more would be willing to do so if requested.
“This is a watershed moment,” Christopher Woods, director of Philadelphia’s University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, told The Washington Post.
The Denver Art Museum recently gave up four Cambodian antiquities that had ties to the indicted art dealer, Douglas Latchford.