Sotheby's cancels sale of 'looted' Benin mask

Online protests halt auction of 'plundered' 16th-century artefact

Sotheby's has scrapped its February sale of a controversial £4.5m mask believed to have been looted by British forces from 19th-century West Africa.

A number of private individuals contacted the auction house last week to complain about the sale of the 16th-century ivory mask, once thought to have belonged to an ancient Nigerian king. Local government officials in Nigeria have publicly condemned the sale and criticised the object's current owners, the descendants of a former British government official involved in an 1897 British invasion of Benin, a city-state in what is now Nigeria.

The mask, one of the last great masterpieces of Benin sculpture remaining in private hands, is believed to have been worn by the "Oba" or king of Benin on ceremonial occasions.

It was due to be sold by the descendants of Lt-Col Sir Henry Lionel Galway, who took part in 1897's punitive expedition in southern Nigeria. This was carried out by British forces in retaliation for a massacre of a previous British-led invasion force. Troops deposed the king and looted the city.

The British confiscated many of the treasures they found, auctioning them off to finance the expedition. Many of the artefacts ended up in the British Museum, which currently holds another of the same group of masks, although some remained in private hands.

"The Benin ivory 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consigned by the descendants of Lionel Galway which Sotheby's had announced for auction in February 2011 have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the consignors," said a Sotheby's spokesman.

Protests against the sale emerged on social networking sites last week. An online petition was organised by the Nigeria Liberty Forum, which describes itself as a "UK-based Nigerian pro-democracy group".

"They should seek good counsel and refrain from selling the mask," Orobosa Omo-Ojo, an official in the state government of Edo, which contains the modern city of Benin, told the press in Nigeria. "Anything that makes them ignore this call [from] the Edo state government will [make us] use this as a starting point to protect our intellectual properties."

The mask, which depicts the head of the queen mother of the Edo peoples, was due to be auctioned along with five other rare pieces collected from Benin at the same time. According to Sotheby's, the masks "rank among the most iconic works of art to have been created in Africa".

The mask had previously been on public view in 1947 as part of an exhibition at London's Berkeley Galleries. It was shown in 1951 in another show at the Arts Gallery of the Imperial Institute in London.

"It has an amazing untouched surface which collectors love," said the director of African and Oceanic Art at Sotheby's, Jean Fritts. "Its honey colour attests to years of rubbing with palm oil."