Benin Bronzes and the Auction World

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Survivors of the 1897 invasion spoke out against the open theft of their cultural artefacts from the start.

Since British soldiers forcibly removed the Benin Plaque Bronzes from their homeland in 1897, there have been movements to repatriate them. In nearly a century, almost nothing has changed. However, in recent years, activism has resurfaced. Greater historical awareness, combined with a growing global movement for racial justice, has brought the Benin Bronzes back into the spotlight.

What happened to the Benin Bronzes, and where should they go now? Who is to blame for their misfortune? As the art world mulls these issues, Auction Daily looks at the history of the Benin Bronzes and its ties to the auction industry.

The Kingdom of Benin was one of the world's most advanced civilizations. The capitol was famed for its ornate walls, street lights, diplomatic manoeuvring, and creative guilds. Countless works for the Oba and his royal palace were created by these artists. The pieces were significant in terms of art, culture, and religion.

In the 1800s, colonialism and rising European powers confronted the once-thriving Kingdom of Benin. Conflicts with the British became more frequent. When minor confrontations between British soldiers and Benin warriors suddenly escalated in 1897, everything changed. Both the capitol and the palace were devastated by unintentional flames that spread out of control. The Kingdom of Benin regretted the tragic loss of life more than anything else.

Survivors of the 1897 invasion spoke out against the open theft of their cultural artefacts from the start. Even as the Kingdom of Benin fell, the British occupied the region, and modern-day Nigeria fought for freedom, the criticism continued. Many people have realised the magnitude of the loss throughout time. "[The stolen works] were our documentation, our archives, and our kings"photographs.'" "Our past was excavated" when they were taken, Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist, told the BBC earlier this year.

The Benin Bronzes Sculptures are currently dispersed throughout museums, private collections, and other locations. The British Museum houses the most of the looted items, followed by Berlin's Ethnological Museum and Oxford's Pitt Rivers Museum.

Museums are frequently chastised for their handling of the Benin Bronzes. Many big auction houses, on the other hand, aided in the distribution and privatisation of the artwork. Some bronzes, ivory items, and brass castings were auctioned after the 1897 attack. There are only a few records of these sales that have survived.

Better documentation and a surge in interest in "tribal art" ushered in the twentieth century. In the 1950s, auction prices for Benin Bronzes began at roughly GBP 5,500. (around USD 209,000 today). Throughout the twentieth century, these figures steadily increased. A Benin head sculpture sold for $4.7 million at Sotheby's in 2007. In a subsequent private sale, the successful bidder paid $13.8 million for another Benin bronze statue for sale. Even as recently as 2020, bronzes with shady provenance surfaced at sale.

Following the announcement of each sale, activists demand for a halt to the auction or recompense for the descendants of the original owners. Denial and dismissal are common responses to this tactic. Collectors who are concerned about provenance can now consign anonymously to avoid being questioned by the press. The same is true for auction houses.

Several controversial artworks found their way to Christie's Paris in late June of 2020. The Arts of Africa, Oceania, and North America sale faced criticism almost immediately after its catalog dropped. The Edo bronze plaque found in the former Kingdom of Benin drew particular ire. This item raised significant concern about Benin bronze statues for sale in today's market due to similarities between it and other stolen works.

  Although the fish-shaped bronze plaque did not sell, other suspicious lots did. A pair of Igbo alusi figures sold for approximately $238,000. It was pointed out that they might have been looted during the Biafran War of the late 1960s. Babatunde Adebiyi, the legal adviser of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, agreed. "There will never be a universal principle that says something made by my forebears belongs to you simply because you bought it in an auction house," he told BBC after the sale. "African antiquities will always be African, just like a Da Vinci will always be European." 

Media Source: AuctionDaily