Collected or Stolen? Sothebys set to auction a plundered Benin Mask on 17 February

Benin mask, likely of Queen Idia, set to be autioned at Sothebys (Photo Credit: Art Daily)

In a posting on facebook and his widely read Naijablog, Jeremy Weate brought my attention to the proposed auction at Sothebys of a 16th century ivory pendant Benin mask, looted during the “Punitive Expedition” by the British on Benin in 1897. The mask is thought to be a representation of Queen Idia of Benin. According to the Art Daily website, which describes the mask with a cool anthropological sort of detachment:

The mask and the five other Benin objects will be sold by the descendants of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Gallwey […]who was appointed deputy commissioner and vice-consul in the newly established Oil Rivers Protectorate (later the Niger Coast Protectorate) in 1891. He remained in Nigeria until 1902 and participated in the British Government’s “Punitive Expedition” of 1897 against Benin City.

The mask is expected to sell for £3.5-4.5* million.

British soldiers of the “Punitive Expedition” of 1897 proudly pose with looted art (Photo Credit:

There has been, as one might expect, much outrage in Nigeria and among Nigerian communities in the diaspora about the intended sale of stolen Benin treasures. An online petition begun on December 22 to “stop the sale of stolen 16th century Benin mask” has so far (as of the time that I am writing, still on December 22) garnered over 370 signatures. To add your name to the list, click here. If art looted from families during the Nazi era in Europe is being returned to the descendants of those from whom it was stolen, then there is no excuse not to return these valuable cultural artifacts back to the palace in Benin. The renewed anger over these stolen artworks reminds me of Wole Soyinka’s revelation in his memoir You Must Set Forth at Dawn of how he tried to “liberate” the Benin Mask used in replica as the symbol of FESTAC.

The most useful way to stay up-to-date on the progress of the campaign to have the mask returned to Nigeria is to check out the facebook page “Stop the Sale of Stolen 16th Century Benin Mask.” This page was only created today but already has a series of updates about contact with the Sotheby’s African Art department and other links on comparable art recovery projects.

UPDATE 26 December 2010. In an almost unbelievable but very encouraging testimony to the power of social media, it seems that Sotheby’s has bowed to pressure and has removed the mask from intended auction. You can see the list of announcements on the Sotheby’s website here and download the very terse note that says:

24TH December 2010


“The Benin Ivory Pendant 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.”

Sahara Reporters notes that:

The auction had spurred a widespread protest by Nigerians and other sympathetic groups organized by the UK-based Nigeria Liberty Forum   (NLF). Hundreds of protesters had contacted Sotheby’s in writing, through phone calls or by street protests to demand the cancellation of the sale and to push for the return of the mask to Nigeria.


The protest organizers encouraged Nigerians across the globe to contact Sotheby’s auctioneers by phone or e-mail. These tactics as well as threats of legal action forced Sotheby’s in London to initially put the sale on hold while seeking further information from the NLF. By Christmas Eve, the sale had been canceled and the announcement removed from Sotheby’s auction calendar.

The campaign marks the second time the NLF would conduct a successful “telephone campaign” to stop high-profile acts of violations of public interests. The group’s first major campaign was to mobilize Nigerians to bombard a Heathrow Hotel with phone calls to drive away Nigeria’s former Attorney General, Michael Aondoakaa, who had sneaked into London to sabotage the trial of associates of former Governor James Ibori. Mr. Aondoakaa was forced to flee the hotel as Nigerians all over the world made more than 1,500 calls to his hotel in less than one hour.

Mr. Ogundamisi told SaharaReporters that the NLF was monitoring other artifacts purloined from Nigeria by British colonial officials and held in different parts of the world. “We will not rest until these cultural assets are returned to their original owners in Nigeria,” he said.

To read the full statement from Kayode Ogundamisi, convener of Nigeria Liberty Forum, see this note on the facebook group “Stop the Sale of Stolen 16th Century Benin Mask”

UPDATE: 23 December 2010:

When you google “Benin Mask Sotheby’s” you find half sites that are advertising the sale of the mask and half sites that are protesting the sale. The Antiques Trade Gazette is a good representative of the sort of patronizing tone taken when discussing African art in the final paragraph of its article about the sale of the piece:

It is unusual for material of this type to be sold by Sotheby’s in London (typically tribal art is sold in Paris), but, according to the auctioneers, the consignor specifically requested its sale in the UK.

Art historian S. Okwunodu Ogbechie points out the double standards applied by museums and institutions like Sothebys, who seem to apply different standards for ownership to African works than they do to artworks from other parts of the world:

Some commentators have suggested that Africans should try to buy back their stolen artworks when these come to public auction. I consider such suggestions preposterous since it allows the vandals who plundered Africa to benefit from their plunder twice over. When Britain and other colonial powers pay restitution to Africa for the rape of the continent,then I will entertain such suggestions. In the absence of any real compensation for centuries of plunder and genocide against Africans, raising this issue at all is clearly a racist form of responsibility avoidance.

All across the world today, many stolen artworks are being repatriated to their countries of origins. No one is asking the cultural owners of these artworks to pay for the privilege of retrieving their ancestors’ properties. Therefore, the relevant issue is whether Africans have any legal rights to their lives, natural and cultural resources. At what point does the brazen dispossession of Africa become a significant political, economic and moral issue? The Sotheby’s sale is part of a broad disregard for the very real impact of dispossession on the reality and fortunes of black Africans today. There is no justice here and it does not appear that black Africans or their descendants will be afforded any kind of legal justice in the prevailing context of white Western power. And yes, this is clearly a racial issue. Zahi Hawass has by and large stopped Western institutions from brazenly trafficking in Egyptian artifacts. He continues to negotiate the return of large numbers of looted Egyptian artworks back to Egypt. Most of these artworks were removed from Egypt more than 250 years ago. Italy has repatriated artworks to Libya. Western museums have repatriated artworks to South Africa. But so far, all requests for repatriation or reparation by black Africans have been dismissed without hearing. This is not surprising: African Americans have so far only received an apology for their centuries –long enslavement and, through their overwhelming imprisonment, they continue to fatten the coffers of modern-day slaveholders who run various prisons in the USA. There has never been any Western country held accountable for their actions in Africa, not even Belgium that oversaw the genocide of close to 10 million Congolese between 1880 and 1920. Sotheby’s multi-million dollar sale of stolen Benin artwork would seem insignificant within such a list of atrocities against Africa but make no mistake, it is part of the same current of morally and ethically dubious actions unfolding without any regard at all for African concerns.

It is therefore time for all Africans who have the resources to contribute to a massive effort to bring the global legal system to bear on these institutions who traffic in stolen African cultural patrimony. There are already precedents: the Holocaust reparation legal challenge is a clear precedence; so is the Native American Graves Repatriation and Protection Act. The issue of African cultural patrimony is an urgent human rights issue. Africans deserve equal access to and equal share of the economic value of artworks created by their ancestors. More importantly, they deserve to have a say in what happens to these artworks in the contemporary era. These artworks arrived in the West on a boat of plunder and bloodshed. Uncountable numbers of African lives were destroyed in the avaricious pursuit of colonization by Western powers. There needs to be an accounting for this history. Western institutions like Sotheby’s that broker the sale of these artworks should also cease and desist. They may not be legally liable for their actions today, but they will be legally liable at some time in the future.

Other excellent commentary is going on at the following blogs:

Jeremy Weate’s Naijablog: “Selling What was Stolen.” 22 December 2010

S. Okwunodu Ogbechie’s AACHRONYM: “Sotheby’s is Trafficking in Stolen Benin Artworks.” 23 December 2010.

MyWeku: “Help Stop the auction of Stolen 16th century Benin Mask.” 23 December 2010

Kwame Opoku’s essay “They are Selling Queen Mother Idia Mask and We are All Quiet” on the Facebook group Stop the Sale of Stolen 16th Century Benin Mask. 23 December 2010.

Katrin Schulze’s Contemporary Arts in Northern Nigeria: “A Quick Interim Report on the Upcoming Sale of Benin Artifacts at Sothebys” and “Update: A Quick Interim Report on the Upcoming Sale of Benin Artifacts at Sothebys” 23 December 2010.

Chika Okeke-Agulu’s Ofodunka: “Sale of stolen Benin ivory mask by Sotheby’s.” 23 December 2010

For more information about the Punitive Expedition and the looting of Benin art, see these articles:

2003 Guardian article “Spoils of War” by Jonathan Jones. compilation of articles from 2008: the Vanguard’s “BNC gives FG 21-day ultimatum to render account on Benin artifacts” by Simon Ebegbulem, and the Guardian’s “Benin rulers renew campaign for artifact’s retrieval in US” by Tajudeen Sowole.

Website featuring Peju Layiwola’s 2010 traveling exhibition “ Art and the Restitution Question.”

2010 Next article “Revisiting the 1897 destruction of Benin” by Akintayo Abodunrin.

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