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Race and History Forum

Nigeria demands treasures back from UK

Monday, 16 September, 2002

A statue presented to the Queen by the president of Nigeria in 1973 has been revealed as a genuine Benin bronze dating back to 1600.
It was generally regarded that the bronze, which is part of the Royal Collection, was a replica that had been commissioned by General Yakubu Gowon to present to the Queen on his visit.

But an eagle-eyed journalist from specialist monthly The Art Newspaper saw that the Benin head of a king looked like an original when it went on public display for the first time during the Golden Jubilee, and brought in experts to examine it.

Martin Bailey found General Gowon had gone to the Lagos National Museum before his trip and took an authentic piece he thought the Queen would like.

The discovery could now weaken the Nigerian Government's claims for the return of more than 700 Benin plaques, many of which are housed in the British Museum, because of the way it was presented to Britain.

Experts from the British Museum say it is an antiquity that would have probably stood on an altar in the palace of the Oba of Benin.


But, in a further twist, it was also revealed it had already been in the UK following the colonial rule of the kingdom of Benin, now south-west Nigeria.

Many bronze pieces were officially seized from the ruler's palace but others were looted by officers who brought them back to Britain.

But sometime after 1947 it was bought in London and returned to the Lagos Museum in time for its opening in 1957.

The Art Newspaper spoke to Professor John Picton, a former curator of the National Museum in Lagos, who had been told of the plundering of its treasures shortly after it happened by museum director Dr Ekpo Eyo.

General Gowon had telephoned Dr Eyo to say he was coming over to the museum to choose a gift to take to Britain.

"Dr Eyo hurried to the museum and managed to remove a few of the finest and unique items and put them in store," Professor Picton told The Art Newspaper.

"General Gowon soon arrived, he looked around and took one of the bronzes from the display. Dr Eyo was horrified, because it was quite improper for the state to be raiding the museum.

"But he also realised that it would weaken Nigeria's position in the debate over repatriation of the Benin bronzes," he added.

The head was displayed on a shelf in the Royal Library for many years before being put into storage until the Golden Jubilee exhibition.

The Art Newspaper's editor, Anna Somers Cocks, said Buckingham Palace had been amazed to discover the bronze was an original because it had been sitting on a library shelf and had only come out because of the jubilee exhibition.

There are no plans to return it to Nigeria.

The Benin head is on display in the State Rooms at Buckingham Palace until 29 September.

24 Jan 02 Nigeria demands treasures back

18 Jan 02 Nations squabble over antiquities

24 Jan 02 Museum urged to give back relic

17 Jan 02 The perils of losing your marbles

03 Mar 01 Museum showcases African art

Internet links:
British Museum
The Art Newspaper

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