‘Hamburg was the place where the first Benin bronzes arrived towards the end of the 19th century and Hamburg could again play a leading role by allowing the first bronzes to leave here on the way back to their original country. This would be a signal.’
I have seldom enjoyed reading an exhibition catalogue as much as I enjoyed reading the catalogue of the exhibition entitled Looted Art? -The Benin Bronzes in the Museum of Arts and Craft, Hamburg. (1)
This exhibition is part of a series dealing with looted art in the collections of the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (MKG) which has been involved in provenance research. The MKG examined the history of the origin of the three Benin bronzes it possesses and the role of its founding director, Justus Brinckmann who procured them for the museum.
Photo:c. Museum fur Kunst und Gewerbe,Hamburg.
Head of an Oba, Benin,Nigeria,now in Kunst und Gewerbe Museum, Hamburg, Germany.
Opened on 15 February 2018, at the end of the exhibition, the three bronzes would be transferred to the Museum für Völkerkunde, Hamburg which has a greater number of Benin bronzes and can present them in a more appropriate way and give them the context they deserve.
Justus Brinckmann, was the first museum director in Germany to have acquired Benin bronzes which he appreciated very much for their aesthetic qualities and the fine craftmanship they displayed. Being in Hamburg, an important habour for colonial goods, Brinckmann was able to secure several Benin artefacts but could not keep them for lack of funds and had to trade some to obtain money for the purchase of other pieces. A large part of the 50 bronzes Brinckmann had in his hands went to the Völkerkunde Museum, Hamburg, and only three pieces remained in the Museum for Arts and Crafts, Hamburg.
Brinckmann contributed to the appreciation and knowledge of the Benin bronzes in Europe through publications and lectures and indeed, it was during one of his presentations that Felix von Luschan saw the Benin bronzes. Luschan secured later many Benin artefacts, some 580 pieces, for his museum, Völkerkunde Museum, Berlin, and published his famous masterwork, Die Altertümer von Benin,1919, in three volumes.
Although the authors mentioned the immediate cause that led to the British invasion of Benin in 1897, namely the killing of members of a British delegation, allegedly going to discuss trade matters with Oba Ovonramwen. The king advised that they should postpone the visit since at the proposed time, he would be involved in a traditional celebration during which time he was not allowed to be seen by any foreigner. The so-called delegation went and eight members of the delegation of nine were killed. Britain swiftly retaliated. The authors seem to have accepted the narrative that is favourable to the British and repeated by many writers.
Full text, including images and notes: