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The Met to return three African art objects to Nigeria

This article was originally published by The Art Newspaper, an editorial partner of CNN Style.
Following recent steps taken by European museums to return the treasures of African art to Nigeria, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced on Wednesday that it was returning three objects to the country.

Two of the works, a pair of 16th century Benin court brass plaques depicting a ‘warrior chief’ and a ‘junior court official’, were donated to the museum in 1991 by art dealer Klaus Perls and his wife Dolly, while the third, a 14th century “Ife Head” was recently donated to the museum to be purchased by another collector.

The museum has decided to return the works after conducting research in collaboration with the British Museum, with input from the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM). Both plaques were part of a collection of 153 pieces of African royal treasures donated to the museum by the Perls 30 years ago, which included brass figurines, carved elephant ivory, masks, jewelry and musical instruments.

Explaining his interest in this work to the New York Times in 1991, Klaus Perls said: “I started buying African art simply because I liked to see it with the works of the generation of Picasso artists in which I specialized as a merchant. Soon, however, my predilection for Beninese art asserted itself, and it became the only genre of African art that I continued to purchase, until, quite unnoticed, it developed. into a collection. “

According to the museum, the plaques were taken in 1897 from the Royal Palace of Benin in present-day Nigeria by British military forces and then entered the collection of the British Museum. Around 1950 or 1951, the London institution transferred them along with 24 other pieces to the National Museum in Lagos.

The works were somehow removed from this museum “on an unknown date and under unclear circumstances,” the Met said in a press release, and were sold on the international art market, where they were sold. was acquired by Perls. Both plates have now been retired by the Met. Credit: Metropolitan Museum of Art

The “Ife Head” brass, meanwhile, was donated to the museum for purchase by a collector the Met has not identified. The 14th-century work originally came from the Wunmonije complex near the Royal Palace of Ife. In 1938, a cache of realistically sculpted portrait heads created by the Yoruba people was discovered in a construction project at the site, and while most went to the National Museum of Ife, several were taken out of the country, leading the Nigerian government to more tightly control the export of antiques.

According to the Met, the individual who donated the head “mistakenly believed that legal title to the work had been granted by the NCMM.” Investigations by the museum have proven otherwise, he added, and the Met “made arrangements with the vendor and his agent for the ‘Ife Head’ to return to its rightful home.”

The Met said it will keep the works until NCMM chief executive Abba Isa Tijani can travel to New York to pick them up. “We sincerely appreciate the transparency shown by the Metropolitan Museum of Art regarding the issues leading to the return of these objects,” Tijani said in a statement.

He added that Nigeria is open to opportunities for “collaborations of all kinds, including traveling exhibitions with many of these exquisite objects”, and that it plans to work “with as many volunteer partners as possible” on initiatives such as the Digital Benin project, an online archive of articles from the historic Kingdom of Benin.

Max Hollein, director of the Met, said in a statement that “the preservation of these works in the national collections of Nigeria is essential to the well-being of the museum community and to the promotion of continued cooperation and dialogue between the Met and our Nigerian counterparts “. Among the projects the Met would like to work on with Nigeria, he added, is the Edo West African Art Museum project in Benin City.

“We welcome the rapprochement that is developing in the museum world and appreciate the sense of justice shown by the Metropolitan Museum of Art,” said Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigerian Minister of Information and Culture, in a statement. . “Nigeria asks other museums to take inspiration from it. The art world can be a better place if every owner of cultural artifacts takes into account the rights and feelings of the dispossessed.

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