A review of 96 artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin in Swiss museums found proof or strong evidence that more than half of the items were stolen by British soldiers in the 19th century.
A research report from the Swiss Benin Initiative (SBI) released this week found that 21 Benin objects in eight Swiss museums were looted based on written records or evidence like burn marks that “provide a direct link to the fateful events of 1897.”
Researchers found “strong evidence” of looting for 32 objects that did not have written evidence linking them to 1897 but were still considered to be court or royal artworks exclusively produced for the palace. “We may assume with considerable certainty that they were violently appropriated in 1897 when the palace was occupied and sacked by the British troops,” the report’s authors wrote.
For example, a brass hip pendant mask at the Rietberg Museum bears an inventory number of William D. Webster on its backside. According to the museum’s latest research, the London art dealer was tasked with the sale of the seized Benin artifacts on behalf of the British colonial administration.
The SBI report also says private collectors, as well as international and Swiss art markets, played a pivotal role in how the objects entered the museums’ collections.
The eight Swiss museums voluntarily launched the SBI in June 2020 with funding support from the Federal Office of Culture. Its goal was to investigate which of the publicly owned Benin objects were directly linked with the events of 1897, when British empire troops were sent to steal artifacts from what is now Nigeria. This was done in retaliation for the death of unarmed British explorer James Philips and several others on his mission after their expedition to Benin.
The thousands of objects taken from the kingdom of Benin is a group of looted artifacts widely known as the Benin Bronzes. Their exact number is unknown, though it is believed to exceed 3,000.
According to a press release, the goal of the SBI research project “was to shed light on the contexts of the acquisitions back in the colonial days and to understand how Switzerland became involved in the trade with looted art from Benin City.” Notably, the SBI project worked with Nigerian historian Enibokun Uzébu-Imarghiabge, who looked into the oral history of the objects being reviewed and conducted interviews with local experts.
As a result of the research, the SBI said the Swiss museums have expressed their openness to a transfer of ownership and possible repatriation of the 53 looted and likely looted artifacts. Few institutions have formally repatriated their Benin Bronzes, although Nigerian officials have encouraged more museums to do so.
If the Benin Bronzes currently held in Swiss museums are eventually sent back to Nigeria, they would likely go to a museum currently being built specifically for them in Benin City. The Edo Museum of West African Art, set to open in 2025, is expected to host the most comprehensive collection of Benin Bronzes to date.