The Rhode Island Museum has returned a Benin bronze sculpture called the “the Head of Oba”, which has been in its collection for more than 70 years, to the Nigerian government.
The sculpture is among some of the culturally precious artefacts that have been repatriated to Nigeria since Germany signed an agreement in August to transfer ownership of the Benin bronzes in its museums to Nigeria.
How did the artefact find its way to the museum?
Sarah Ganz Blythe, the Museum Interim Director of the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, RISD, where the bronze has been held, during the transfer ceremony held at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC, revealed that “in 1897 the ‘Head of Oba’ was stolen from the royal palace of Oba Ovoranwmen”.
According to her, the bronze sculpture, which is believed to date back to the 18th century, was given to the RISD Museum by Lucy Truman Aldrich circa 1939. It had been acquired in a 1935 sale of objects from the Benin kingdom from the Knoedler Gallery in New York, she stated, adding that a French custom stamp on the interior of the artefact suggested that it had been held in a French collection.
The RISD Museum also said the sculpture is almost certainly one of the looted objects, even though it has not been able to trace the piece to a specific French or British collection.
What’s the reaction from the Nigerian authorities?
Speaking after the transfer of the sculpture to the Nigeria National Collections, Director-General of the Nigeria National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abba Isah Tijani said he hopes the latest transfer would inspire other museums to return African artefacts.