New York Met agrees to return three pieces of art stolen from Nigeria

The artwork was taken from Nigeria during the colonial period by the British army

Graig Graziosi
Friday 11 June 2021 19:59 BST
<p>A handout picture taken on March 17, 2021 at the University of Aberdeen shows a bronze sculpture depicting an "Oba" (king) of Benin acquired by the University at auction in 1957</p>

A handout picture taken on March 17, 2021 at the University of Aberdeen shows a bronze sculpture depicting an "Oba" (king) of Benin acquired by the University at auction in 1957

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Three pieces of art looted by the British military in the late 19th century will return to Nigeria from New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of a broader effort among museums to return art taken from the country.

The Met's move follows those of museums in Europe which have also recently returned art to Nigeria.

CNN reported that two of the pieces, a pair of 16th-century Benin Court brass plaques called "Warrior Chief" and "Junior Court Official," were given to the museum in 1991 from an art dealer named Klaus Perls and his wife Dolly.

Another piece, a 14th-century "Ife Head," was offered to the museum by another collector.

The Met conducted research alongside the British Museum, which included input from the Nigerian National Commission for Museum and Monuments, and decided it would be best to return the pieces.

The director general of the commission, Abba Isa Tijani, praised the move in a statement.

"We sincerely appreciate the transparency exhibited by the Metropolitan Museum of Art regarding issues leading to the return of these objects," he said.

The plaques were originally part of a 153-piece collection of African royal treasures given to the museum by the Perlses 30 years ago. The treasures included carved elephant ivory, jewelry, masks, musical instruments and brass figures.

Mr Perls told The New York Times in 1991 that his collection of African art developed somewhat by accident over the years.

"I started buying African art simply because I liked to see it together with the works of the Picasso generation of artists in which I specialized as a dealer," he said. "Soon, however, my predilection for Benin art asserted itself, and it became the only kind of African art I continued to buy, until, quite unnoticed, it developed into a collection."

The Met said that the plaques were taken from Benin Royal Palace in present-day Nigeria in 1897 by British military forces. They then entered the British Museum's collection.

Around 1950 or 1951, the London Institution transferred the pieces, as well as 24 others, to the National Museum in Lagos.

The pieces disappeared from the museum "at an unknown date and under unclear circumstances," according to the Met.

The art was then sold at an international art market, where Mr Perls bought them.

Germany also announced that it will begin returning Benin bronze pieces from its national collections beginning next year.

As efforts to return the pieces grow, Nigeria's minister of information and culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, is asking that other museums consider returning African artwork that was taken during colonial occupations as well.

“Nigeria enjoins other museums to take a cue from this,” he said in a statement. “The art world can be a better place if every possessor of cultural artifacts considers the rights and feelings of the dispossessed.”

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