The New York–based organization Restitution Study Group (RSG) is spearheading a lawsuit against the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. to stop the return of the museum’s 29 Benin bronzes to Nigeria. The group argues that returning the bronzes denies the descendants of enslaved people in America the chance to experience their heritage.
On October 11, ownership of the 29 pieces was legally transferred from the Smithsonian to the Nigerian Commission for Museums and Monuments, while nine items are to remain on long-term loan at the Smithsonian.
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The Benin Bronzes have long been the center of restitution debates. The group comprises at least 3,000 objects were plundered by the British from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897.
On October 14, a court denied a restraining order requested by RSG, stating that “even if [the] plaintiffs could establish that ancestral link to the bronzes—which they have not done on this record—such an attenuated connection would not give rise to the type of ‘concrete and particularized’ injury necessary for standing.”
The court document continued, “The Smithsonian does not appear to have acted beyond its statutory authority by reaching an agreement with Nigeria to transfer some of the Benin bronzes.”
RSG founder and executive director Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, who is a descendant of enslaved people brought from the Kingdom of Benin to the U.S., told the Art Newspaper, “The court is wrong on critical facts. We are about to amend and move forward with the case. There are 29 bronzes connected to the 11 October transfer. Nine are still at the Smithsonian and 20 more will be subject to a vote by the [institution’s] Board of Regents, possibly on 13 December.”
The RSG case, she adds, aims to block the transfer of the 20 artifacts, as well as reverse the allegedly “illegally transferred” bronzes, including the nine on loan at the Smithsonian.
“The judge’s order speaks for itself,” said a spokesperson for the Smithsonian. “The transfer of ownership has happened; 29 bronzes from the 1897 raid were returned to Nigeria. Later, they [Nigerian officials] signed a loan agreement and the National Museum of African Art [at the Smithsonian Institute] has nine of those bronzes following a standard museum loan agreement.”
A number of the bronzes have been returned to Nigeria, including most recently ones that previously belonged to London’s Horniman Museum and Gardens and the city of Glasgow in Scotland. The Benin Bronzes can be viewed as part of a recently established online database.