British forces took the items during the 1874 Sagrenti War, and the return took place on Monday—the 150th anniversary of the looting.
“Even though we have legal title to these objects, we don’t own these objects,” says Silvia Forni, the director of the Fowler, to the Art Newspaper’s Scarlet Cheng, “They are objects that we have in custody, not just for UCLA and the public, but also we have a responsibility, which is an ethical responsibility to the community of origin.”
Museum officials traveled to the city of Kumasi to deliver the objects to Otumfuo Osei Tutu II, the Asante king. They include two gold stool ornaments, a gold necklace, two bracelets or anklets, an ornamental chair and an elephant tail whisk—which “is a ceremonial piece that is held by someone of incredibly high status,” says Erica P. Jones, the museum’s manager of curatorial affairs and senior curator of African arts, to the Art Newspaper.
The British seized four of the objects—the whisk, chair and bracelets—on February 5, 1874. Soon after, the other three—the gold stool ornaments and gold necklace—were taken as part of a payment connected to the Treaty of Fomena, which required the Asante kingdom to pay the British 50,000 ounces of gold.
“At the Fowler Museum, we think of ourselves as temporary custodians of the objects in our collection,” says Jones in a statement. “In the case of the pieces that were violently or coercively taken from their original owners or communities, it is our ethical responsibility to do what we can to return those objects. It is a process that will occupy generations of Fowler staff, but it is something that we are unwavering in our commitment to accomplish.”
In 1965, the artifacts were among the 30,000 objects donated to the Fowler by the Wellcome Trust—the largest gift in the history of the museum, which focuses on the cultures of Africa, Asia, the Pacific and the Indigenous Americas. The benefactor, Sir Henry Wellcome, was a British pharmaceutical entrepreneur and artifact collector, according to the New York Times’ Colin Moynihan. The Fowler discovered the provenance of the stolen artifacts after conducting an extensive investigation into its colonial-era African collection, which was funded by a Mellon Foundation grant.
The British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum also recently announced plans to return gold and silver objects that British troops looted from the Asante kingdom in the 19th century. Those returns, however, were not permanent. Instead, they were part of a long-term loan agreement, which will likely be renewed. The Fowler’s returns are permanent.
Monday’s repatriation was not the first time the Fowler has returned artifacts—the museum has been returning Native American grave items for many years—but it is its first international effort, according to the Art Newspaper.
With the permission of the Asante royal palace, the Fowler has also taken 3D scans of the objects. Asante artists commissioned by the museum will use the scans to create replicas to display.
“We are globally shifting away from the idea of museums as unquestionable repositories of art, as collecting institutions entitled to own and interpret art based primarily on scholarly expertise, to the idea of museums as custodians, with ethical responsibility for the collection and towards the communities of origin of these collections,” says Forni in the statement.