After 120 years, Nigeria’s stolen art could be returning home from Britain—but only on loan

Examples of Benin kingdom art around the world
Examples of Benin kingdom art around the world
Image: Creative Commons license/collage
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Nigeria’s looted art could be returning home from cultural institutions such as the British Museum after officials said they were open to the idea of it being a loan. Some of the most prized items stolen by British forces are the Benin kingdom’s bronze statues.

The statues were pillaged in 1897 as British forces sought to wipe out the kingdom in what is known as the ‘punitive expedition’ for acts deemed an upfront to the colonial-occupier government. Despite repeated attempts by Nigerian authorities and traditional elders for them returned home, the statues remain unmoved in the British Museum in London or shipped across to other western museums.

The governor of Edo state in southern Nigeria (home to the modern day Benin kingdom) told Reuters: “whatever terms we can agree to have them back so that we can relate to our experience, relate to these works that are at the essence of who we are, we would be open to such conversations.” The Oba of the Benin kingdom has already announced plans for a new museum near his palace to house the art stolen from his forebears.

Old-time looters in Benin. (Commons/Reginald Kerr Granville)
Old-time looters in Benin. (Commons/Reginald Kerr Granville)
Image: (Creative Commons/Reginald Kerr Granville)

This appears to be part of a growing acceptance among African governments that such deals, however unpopular among the public, are the only way western museums will let go of pieces that attract millions of visitors. In April, Ethiopia also agreed to a similar move by the Victoria & Albert Museum to have its stolen art loaned to them, saying it viewed “[the] goodwill gesture as a step in the right direction.”

However, Egypt, which also has numerous art pieces spread across the west have insisted on unconditional returns. Analysts say if a successful deal is done with Nigeria, it could serve as a template for other equally contentious demands such as the ones for the Greek and Chinese governments for Britain to return stolen items.

Earlier this month, the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn promised to return stolen artefacts if he was voted in as British prime minister. In March, Emmanuel Macron appointed two experts whose job is to present to him by November, a plan on how to return stolen art. He has also set a target that could see the return of some items within five years.

Aside concerns that once these artifacts go back as a loan, they will not be handed back to western museums, wariness has been expressed about the safety of these items once they get back. There are fears that returning the pieces to poorly resourced African museums could expose them to poor maintenance or even ending up on a black market, where they could fetch millions of dollars.

Returning stolen art has for a long time being part of a wider campaign for reparations from Western governments to countries that endured the brutalities of slavery and colonization which contributed significantly to wealth of the west and impoverishment of colonized societies.