Stolen African Art from Benin Up for Auction at Sotheby’s?

December 24, 2010 § 5 Comments

Benin Mask picturing Queen Idia of the Ancient Kingdom of Benin

A 16th century Benin mask, whose image was famously used as the symbol of FESTAC ’77 (World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture) is about to be auctioned off at Sotheby’s in London – unless a group of determined Africans can stop it. Efforts have been ongoing for years to have the mask, which is said to represent the face of Queen Idia, the first Queen mother of Benin, be returned along with hundreds of other priceless artifacts looted from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 during a “Punitive” invasion by the British. But what galls many African art historians now is that the descendants of Lt. Col. Sir Henry Gallwey (later changed to Galway) are putting the mask, together with 5 other precious Benin art works, up for sale in  February 2011 and hoping to get millions of pounds from them. Problem is, say historians, it’s stolen property.

British authorities posing with precious art from the Benin Kingdom (courtesy Myweku)

This is a very controversial issue, definitely litigious. During the aforementioned FESTAC ’77, the British refused to acquiesce to even a short period loan of one of the masks to the organizers of the event. A noted African Art scholar, Dr. S. Okwunodu Ogbechie, has been at the forefront of the movement for repatriation of stolen African art for years. At the heart of the matter is this issue, from Prof. Ogbechie’s Blog:

…the descendants of a known British thief and vandal who stole the Idia mask from Benin stand to make between 3.5 and 4.5 million British pounds on the sale of an artwork commissioned and paid for by a Benin king (Esigie), which was a representation of his mother (Iyoba Idia) was used as part of the royal regalia of an existing kingdom, while it is clear no single penny will accrue to the Benin king or his descendants from the sale of this item of cultural heritage.

The full blog post can be read here: AACHRONYM: SOTHEBY’S IS TRAFFICIKING IN STOLEN BENIN ARTWORKS He has also started a Facebook page to raise more awareness of the issue of Stolen African Art, and encourage people to sign a petition against the upcoming Sotheby’s auction. It appears that protests might be having an effect, as this article lays out. If you’d like a history of some of the stolen art from Benin, there are details in this Myweku post, that includes three videos on the matter. But I still can’t resist reposting one of them, which you can view after the jump. Interested in joining the petition? You can find it here. Let me know what you think about the whole issue! Bless…

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