Two works, a pair of 16th-century Benin court brass plaques featuring a “warrior chief” and a “junior court officer”, were donated to the museum in 1991 by art dealer Claus Perls and his wife Dolly, while the third, The 14th-century “If Head” was recently offered to the museum for purchase by another collector.
The museum decided to return the works after conducting research in collaboration with the British Museum, with input from the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). The two plaques were part of a 153-piece collection of African royal treasures given to the museum by Perls 30 years ago, including brass figures, carved elephant ivory, masks, jewelry and musical instruments.
According to the museum, the plaques were taken by British military forces in 1897 at the Benin Royal Palace, present-day Nigeria, and then entered the collection of the British Museum. Around 1950 or 1951, the London institution transferred them along with 24 other objects to the National Museum in Lagos.
The works were somehow removed from that museum, and sold on the international art market, where they were acquired by Perls, “at an unknown date and under unclear circumstances,” the Met said in a press release. Both plaques have now been removed by the Met.
http://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/316484 Credits: Metropolitan Museum of Art
According to the Met, the person offering the head was “under the misunderstanding that the legal title to the work was granted by the NCMM.” Inquiries by the museum proved otherwise, it added, and the Met “arranged with the seller and his agent to ‘if head’ back to their rightful home.”
The Met said it would continue work until the NCMM’s director general, Abba Isa Tijani, could travel to New York to retrieve them. “We sincerely appreciate the transparency displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art with respect to the return issues of these items,” Tijani said in a statement.
The Met director Max Hallin said in a statement that “the retention of these works within the Nigerian National Collection is critical to the well-being of the museum community and to fostering the ongoing collaboration and dialogue between the Met and our Nigerian counterparts.” He added that among the projects the Met would like to work with Nigeria on is the planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City.
Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohamed, said in a statement: “We welcome the growing association in the museum world, and appreciate the spirit of justice displayed by the Metropolitan Museum of Art.” “Nigeria tells other museums to learn from this. The art world can be a better place if every owner of cultural artifacts considers the rights and feelings of the underprivileged.”