Opinion: What We Understand By “Restitution”

By Kwame Opoku | Wed 13 February 2013

Kwame Opoku questions whether Nigeria’s approach to restitution of cultural artefacts is really working and offers a more progressive approach and honest definition.

“Short of giving details of the anticipated repossession of Nigerian artefacts from France, Usman insisted that diplomacy remained the “best and only option for now and we would change our strategy if it’s not working.”

We are all pleased that the French, just like the US Americans are returning Nigerian looted artefacts that have been intercepted by the police or customs whilst in transit or at arrival at port of destination. This is the result of normal collaboration between customs/police institutions of France/USA and those of Nigeria. They are not the result of efforts by cultural institutions seeking the return of looted items, as far as we know. These are the results of investigation of criminal activities pursued by the customs/police institutions.

When we talk about restitution of cultural artefacts, we are referring to those cultural objects, like the Benin artefacts in British Museum, Ethnology Museum, Berlin, Ethnology Museum, Vienna, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston and other museums. These artefacts, like the Nok sculptures and other Nigerian objects in Musée du Quai Branly, and other museums or private collections, are already located in definite places and the museums there feel they have a right to keep them despite frequent demands for their restitution. Although many of these objects are looted objects, they are not objects of customs/police seizures. They are often identifiable by name such as Queen-Mother Idia or Akenzua II because they are known to both holders and demanders as specific objects. They are not anonymous as many of the recent customs/police seizures are. The French Ambassador stated at the recent return of the Nok objects to Nigeria; as follows:

“At the time of the seizure, nobody knew where the statuettes exactly came from. They were later analysed by several French experts, coming from a famous French museum (Musee du Quai Branly), from the French Museums Directorate of the Ministry of Culture, and from the Research and Restoration Laboratory of the also famous Louvre Museum. These experts were eventually able to determine their origin.”

Usually, the objects of restitution discussions between institutions are of a much better quality than many that are seized in transit between two countries but this is not an absolute rule. What is important to retain is that in restitution discussions, the object is not on its way to another place, nor in transition but has a definite location, such as the 584 Benin bronzes in the Ethnology Museum, Berlin or the 167 Benin artefacts in Vienna. They are not going anywhere because the holders believe they have a right to keep them and they have said so loudly and often.

The holders consider that these artefacts are theirs by right.

Members of the notorious British Punitive Expedition of 1897 against Benin, posing proudly with looted Benin ivories and bronze objects.

The return home

Sometimes the illegal holders of these artefacts present them as if they had created them. Thus the Germans who are keeping the Egyptian Queen, Nefertiti in the Neues Museum in Berlin call her “Berlinerin” (a woman from Berlin).

The great Ekpo Eyo in his, From Shrines to Showcases: Masterpieces of Nigerian Art, (2010, Federal Ministry of Information and Communication, Abuja) mentions many Nigerian works that are outside the country. The catalogues of various exhibitions, involving collaboration by Nigerian institutions display many excellent Nigerian pieces that were sent abroad under unknown circumstances.

When some of the famous Nigerian artworks abroad start returning home, when the looted Benin bronzes start coming home from the British Museum ,or from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston or from the Ethnology Museum, Berlin, we would know that restitution of looted Nigerian artefacts has begun. And we shall dance, dance and dance.

Commemorative Head: 1897, Stolen from Benin by Cpt Guy Burrows; 2 May 1898, trafficked by Norman Burrows, for £18 to Lt.-Gen Augustus Henry Pitt-Rivers, England; kept at the Pitt-Rivers Museum, Farnham, and trafficked upon collection dispersal.

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The illegal holders believe they have a right to keep them and have said so loudly and often. Sometimes they even present them as if they had created them.

Kwame Opoku

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