The Smithsonian Will Return 29 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

The Smithsonian Board of Regents has voted to deaccession 29 objects from the group known as the Benin bronzes — an expansive set of sculptures that once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin and were hacked off by British forces during the Benin Expedition of 1897 — in the National Museum of African Art’s (NMAA) collection. The June 13 vote clears one of the final hurdles in a process that was set in motion in March by the Smithsonian Institution (SI) to repatriate a majority of the 39 Benin bronzes in its collection, which took place four months after the NMAA removed the artifacts from display.

In late April, the Smithsonian announced a new ethical returns policy that permitted its constituent museums to return any items in their collections they deemed to have reached them by ethically dubious means. It instituted a shift in the institution’s attitude toward restitution: Previously, the SI held that it had a solid claim to an item in its collection so long as the legal basis for their ownership was sound.

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According to the terms of the new ethical returns policy, Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III officially requested for the title of the 29 bronzes — which were confirmed to have likely been looted in the 1897 raid — to be transferred from the NMAA to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

A Smithsonian spokesperson told Hyperallergic that provenance research is still being conducted on the ten remaining bronzes in the collection. A repatriation date still has not been set.


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