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IOWA CITY — Like more than a dozen other museums working to return to Nigeria objects and artifacts stolen in the 1800s, the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art has arranged an audience with the Oba of Benin this fall in hopes of repatriating two pieces “to their rightful owners as swiftly as possible.”
The Stanley’s curatorial staff in 2019 — on the heels of prominent news stories about looted art from Benin — began researching the provenance of objects in its collection that might have originated at the royal court of Benin, which British forces attacked and pillaged in 1897 in what today is West Africa’s Nigeria.
“Provenance research is slow and labor-intensive, but we have now identified two artworks in the Stanley’s collection that were likely looted during the 1897 British attack on the royal palace of Benin,” UI Stanley Museum of Art Director Lauren Lessing told The Gazette.
Those two pieces include a small brass plaque and a wood sculpture of a hen, she said, neither of which are on display.
“We cannot ethically display or publish these objects because they rightfully belong to the Oba of Benin,” Lessing said, using the west African word for “ruler.” “It is his decision whether or not to display them.”
UI is not alone in its repatriation efforts.
Given a growing movement among museums to return to the rightful owners colonial-era African art, the Washington Post recently surveyed 70 institutions to determine how many have Benin Kingdom Court-style works and how many are repatriating them. Of 56 institutions found with Benin pieces — for a combined total of up to 1,200 artifacts — 16 institutions said they’re either engaged in repatriation or willing to do so, including the UI Stanley Museum of Art.
Cory Gundlach, the UI Stanley’s curator of African art, has led the campus’ provenance efforts with support from the UI Office of International Programs and the Stanley-University of Iowa Foundation Support Organization.
The two artworks likely looted in the 1897 Benin attack came to UI through collectors “who had no knowledge of their origin,” according to Lessing.
“In the wake of these discoveries, we began discussions with a member of the royal family who has arranged an audience for us with the Oba of Benin that will occur this fall,” she said.
The university also is corresponding with federal Nigerian representatives who will facilitate return of the artworks.
“Our goal is to deaccession them and return them to their rightful owners as swiftly as possible,” Lessing said.
The Washington Post reported provenance and repatriation efforts accelerated across museums nationally after the murder of George Floyd in 2020 in Minneapolis and racial reckoning that followed. COVID-19 also has played a role in that pandemic closures gave museums more time for introspection.
In addition to UI’s Stanley and others, the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology — or Penn Museum — is working to transfer legal ownership of its 196 works directly tied to the 1897 attack back to Nigerian officials, the Post reported. The Smithsonian in March made news for plans to repatriate dozens of Benin works.
The Post — in its investigation — found half a dozen are in the process, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which agreed in November to return three pieces to Nigerian officials, committing additionally to future exchanges and shared expertise.
The rush of repatriations have created a backlog among Nigerian agencies — forcing them to prioritize the return of the most prominent collections, according to the Post.
UI’s Lessing said the prioritization is “entirely the decision of the Oba and the government of Nigeria.”
“We are formally offering to return these objects, and we will hold them in our care (without displaying them) until the Oba and the Nigerian government are ready to receive them,” she said.
To get the Nigerian artifacts home, the country’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments is negotiating with institutions — focusing largely on major collections, given costs of shipping, storing and care can be impractical for some Nigerian institutions.
“We are aware of the deficiency (in Nigeria's system) and how expensive it is to store and protect (them),” Phillip Ihenacho, with the Legacy Restoration Trust which is building Nigeria’s museum infrastructure, told the Post. “The first step is a change in legal title, so that Nigeria is recognized as the owner. I don't think the end goal should be every single object that exists outside of Africa should be in Nigeria. Some may remain abroad as cultural ambassadors.”
But Nigeria should get the choice, Ihenacho said.
As to whether UI is looking into the provenance of other pieces in its collection, Lessing reiterated her commitment to researching the history of all the museum’s artwork — noting the staff is small and the work is “slow and painstaking.”
“But we will continue doing this work, always, in order to learn as much as we can about the objects in our care,” she said.
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The Washington Post contributed to this report.