On Monday, the Metropolitan Museum of Art made the return of three looted objects to Nigeria official. At a repatriation ceremony held today in New York, the museum also signed an agreement to partner with the Nigerian government to collaborate on art loans and scholarship. It is unclear whether the Met plans to send back more works from its holdings in the future, however.
The ceremony held today at the museum centered around two 16th-century brass plaques looted from the Court of Benin and a brass head produced in the region of Ife around the 14th century. Officials from the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), including its director general, Abba Isa Tijani, were present to receive the works.
The Met first announced it would repatriate the three objects in June. The two plaques are part of a controversial grouping of objects known as the Benin Bronzes, which were stolen by British troops in 1897 from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Nigeria. Other museums, including Germany’s national collections, have undertaken similar—and sometimes more extensive—measures. The Met is believed to hold 160 Benin Bronzes. The two plaques entered the museum’s collection as a gift from a private donor in 1991.
According to Alisa LaGamma, a curator in the Met’s African art department, the last owner of the Ife brass head—which she described as “one of the great treasures of world art”—offered the rare object to the museum for sale. After a five-year-long “exam” period, the museum determined to send it back. The artifact had never been exhibited publicly at the museum.
As part of the return, the Met and Nigerian officials signed an agreement to collaborate on loans and exchanges of art. Under the agreement, the Met will temporarily send material from its collection for the opening of the not-yet-built Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, as well as to other branches of Nigeria’s national museums. The NCMM, which oversees around 100 state museums and monuments, will loan works to the Met for the reopening of its African art wing in 2024.
“It shouldn’t be only limited to the question of the Benin Bronzes. It can go much further,” Max Hollein, the Met’s director, told ARTnews. “We are looking forward to creating these much stronger bonds. It is about scholarly exchange, having joint ideas about how we can support each other.” The agreement is an effort toward “sketching out the path forward together—that is what we were trying to manifest here today.”
The Met is among several international institutions to begin repatriating the stolen Benin artifacts, following the Nigerian government’s advocacy to recover them. Earlier this month, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, D.C. said it had identified 16 objects from its holdings linked to the 1897 military raid. They are now being considered for repatriation. In October, German and Nigerian officials signed an agreement outlining the return of more than 1,000 Benin Bronzes from Germany to Nigeria in Spring 2022. That accord will be formalized in December.
In an interview following the signing, Abba Issa Tijani, the director general of the NCMM, explained that the need for the formal memorandum is “to have a clear outline of what we want to do together. It’s a part of a museum’s activities to have these kinds of collaborations.” The point of these arrangements, he continued, is to work with other countries to help build up Nigeria’s institutions. “We cannot exist on an island,” he added.