At a ceremony on Monday 22 Nov 2021, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) entered into an agreement to collaborate on mutual loans of Benin objects and other “exchanges of expertise and art.”
The Met had earlier announced repatriation of two 16th century brass plaques that once adorned the Royal Palace in Benin City, capital of the ancient West African Kingdom of Benin.
“Warrior Chief” and “Junior Court Official” belong to the group of highly contested objects known as the Benin Bronzes, looted by British forces from present-day Nigeria in the 1890s. They were both donated to the museum in 1991 by the Modern art dealer Klaus Perls and his wife Dolly.
In addition to thwo plaques, the Met helped broker return of a 3rd object, a 14th-century Ife Head, which was recently offered to the museum for purchase by another collector. The museum decided to return the 3 artworks after conducting research with input from the NCMM and in collaboration with the British Museum, which owns over 900 objects from the Kingdom of Benin.
Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of the NCMM, during the event, commended the Met Museium and said “The issue of repatriation is now at the heart of the people. People are looking at museums, particularly in Europe, and saying: these artifacts are not legally owned, are not their own. Yet they display these objects and take all the credit.”
The Met Museum currently houses approximately 160 objects from Benin City, most of them donated in the 1970s and 1990s by individuals who purchased them on the art market under nebulous circumstances.
According to the 1970 UNESCO Convention, institutions and individuals must take measures to “seize and return any cultural property stolen and imported” from a museum or public monument.
The restitution of stolen works of art in Africa by colonial armies has affected institutions across the Western world. In November 2021, Paris handed back 26 treasures that were looted from Benin during colonial times, fulfilling a promise made by President Emmanuel Macron to restore a lost part of Africa’s heritage.
German museums have agreed to work with Nigerian authorities on a plan to repatriate looted Benin treasures, while London’s Horniman Museum said in April that it would consider the repatriation of artifacts obtained by “colonial violence” to Nigeria.
The British Museum, which has faced increasing criticism for its refusal to return artifacts to Nigeria and Egypt among other places, helped to return more than 150 looted ancient treasures to institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2019.