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European Summit to Discuss the Return of Looted West African Art

Treasures taken by a British invasion in 1897 could return to Nigeria as a permanent exhibition

Some of the hundreds of brass plaques taken from Benin City in 1897 now held by the British Museum (Jorge Tutor / Alamy Stock Photo)
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In 1897, a British military expedition looted thousands of valuable artworks from the Kingdom of Benin. Now, 120 years later, the saga of the seized West African art continues. As Ben Quinn reports for The Observer, European museums have announced they will hold a summit to discuss what to do with the treasures next year.

In the 19th century, the Kingdom of Benin, which is now part of Nigeria, was a trading partner with the United Kingdom, but the British resented the kingdom's independence, which included setting customs duties for trade. After an attempt by a small British force to overthrow Benin's ruler resulted in a massacre of the British soldiers, the United Kingdom sent a large "punitive expedition" to the west African country to crush it. The soldiers burned Benin City and took everything of value they could to ship back home.

Much of the art was then auctioned off by the British government to pay for the expedition, with the largest portion ending up in Berlin's Ethnological Museum, followed by a significant collection acquired by London's British Museum. This flood of objects into European collections gave many European artists their first taste of African art, as critic Jonathan Jones wrote in the Guardian in 2003, helping inspire the rise of Modernism.

Authorities from Nigeria have called for repatriation of the artwork, and in 2016, students at the University of Cambridge made headlines when they demanded a bronze cockerel on campus, which had been looted as part of the 1987 expedition, be returned to Nigeria. While the statue has since been removed from view, the college was still considering the "question of repatriation" when the BBC reported on the incident in March of 2017.

Curators will now discuss the fate of that sculpture and hundreds of other works of art at a conference next year at the National Museum of Ethnology in the Netherlands, Quinn reports. Many of them hope to form a permanent exhibit of the works in modern-day Benin City, Nigeria.

As Khanya Mtshali reports for Quartz Africa, this is just the latest attempt by Nigeria to recover its looted art. A Boston museum was asked in 2010 by the country to return 32 bronze and ivory sculptures looted as part of the Benin expedition, while a British descendent of a soldier from the expedition returned two artifacts to a descendent of Benin's deposed king in 2014.

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