In a move that further complicates the restitution of the Benin Bronzes, the Nigerian government officially recognized the Oba of Benin, Ewuare II, as the owner and guardian of the looted artifacts, according to a presidential declaration on March 23.
“By the announced law, all artefacts must be delivered to the Oba of Benin who exercises the rights of original owner. This covers the ones already repatriated and those yet to be repatriated,” reads a report on the online news outlet Arise.
The Benin Bronzes are a group of thousands of objects plundered by British troops from the Kingdom of Benin during the 19th century. Believed to exceed 3,000 total objects, the hoard includes figurines, tusks, sculptures of Benin’s rulers, and an ivory mask primarily dispersed among European and US museums. The British plundered the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 after an unarmed British explorer was killed there. The kingdom was later added to the British protectorate of Nigeria, which then became the independent Federal Republic of Nigeria in 1960.
Over the last few years in particular, the Benin Bronzes have been at the center of an ongoing restitution debate. This decision now further complicates an already fraught process for Western institutions seeking to restitute these artifacts, which have in recent years gone through the Nigerian government as part of diplomatic processes.
A number of the bronzes have already been returned to Nigeria, including most recently ones that previously belonged to London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens and the city of Glasgow in Scotland. The Benin Bronzes can also be viewed as part of a recently established online database.
Local Edo State governor Godwin Obaseki supports the housing of the Benin Bronzes at the Edo Museum of West African Art, while Ewuare II has said he would would like the bronzes to be held by his family in the royal museum or palace. Managed by the nonprofit organization Emowaa Trust, the Edo Museum is slated to open in stages beginning in 2024.
With the recent transfer of ownership, it remains unclear where the artifacts—restituted or in the process of being restituted—will reside.