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‘The restitution of those cultural objects which our museums and collections, directly or indirectly, possess thanks to the colonial system and are now being demanded, must also not be postponed with cheap arguments and tricks.’

Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause (1)



Commemorative head of a Queen-Mother, Benin, Nigeria, now in Field Museum, Chicago, United States of America.


When I started writing on Benin artefacts, I learnt, for the first time and to my utter surprise, that the Field Museum in Chicago that I have known as a natural history museum had some 400 of the precious Benin treasures which had been looted in the nefarious British invasion of 1897(2) Part of this large number of artefacts had been donated by Captain A. W. F. Fuller and his wife to the museum. (3)


At the time I heard of the presence of the Benin artefacts in the Field Museum, the home page of the museum offered information on these objects. When I later made a virtual visit to the museum, I found hardly any information on these objects except a reference to Smithsonian National Museum on African Art. (4)


When we came to prepare a new list of holders of the Benin artefacts, I revisited the homepage of the Field Museum and to my shock; there was no reference to Benin at all at the museum’s homepage although there was mention of Africa, Angola, Nigeria, Madagascar, Yoruba peoples, Merina, Tanala, and Betsileo. A link suggested the possibility of purchasing a catalogue of the Anthropology Department but when I cliked the anwer came that the page was not available.

I got the feeling and impression that Benin and Benin artefacts had ceased to be viable or relevant concepts for the Field Museum. There was a section devoted to A.W.F.Fuller but this dealt only with his donation of ethnographic artefacts from South Pacific. We then saw an article on the web, at the blog,It Surfaced Down Under! “Museums and the Market: When Cultural Institutions Must Sell”  which discussed what museums experiencing financial difficulties might do, for example, sell some of their assets, including artefacts and other cultural objects under their control. Reference was made to the Field museum as an example of a museum experiencing financial difficulties. We read further articles with alarming headlines:

Chicago’s Famed Field Museum Struggles To Dig Out Of A Hole” by Cheryl Corlesy who quoted the CEO of the museum, Richard Lariviere as declaring The Field had predicted big increases in attendance. That didn’t happen, and it fell short of its fundraising goals. There have been layoffs and other cost-cutting, but the museum’s budget is still $5 million in the red, and a good chunk of the budget is slated to pay off its bond debt.”

Another report by David Roeder was titled “Field Museum faces several financial challenges”

A further article in the Examiner, titled, “Field Museum Faces Uncertain Future” stated that “According to an article on the Chicago Tribune, the museum’s President is reducing the Museum’s research staff and looking to better exploit their available artifacts. The former is the bigger cause of concern, but the latter may make some of these artifacts less available for research purposes.”…/chicago

A headline in a report read: “Debt Causes Chicago’s Field Museum to Auction off Collections”. The Non Profit Times 6 may 2013

A more recent article by Lee Rosenberg was titled “From Millage to Pillage? Detroit Institute of Arts Confronts Possible Rape of Its Collection“ where she stated inter alia,

 To artworld observers, the notion that the Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) could be forced, if the city declares bankruptcy, to relinquish its greatest masterpieces to satisfy Detroit’s creditors is inconceivable.

But the “inconceivable” is beginning to look possible: With the city’s bankruptcy now looming as a real possibility, liquidating the museum’s rich artistic assets, which are owned by the city, could be the easiest way for the city to raise quick cash for a bankruptcy settlement without disrupting other operations of this compromised metropolis.”

Rosenberg’s article served to assure us that one does not have to be hysterical to worry about the possible sale of artefacts by museums facing financial difficulties. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) has a collection of African artefacts, including Benin artefacts, that could now or in the near future be in danger of being soldNicholas Wapshott wrote with respect to the Detroit Institute of Art (DIA) an article titled “Detroit: Selling the family silver?”

Hearing that the official hired to sort out Detroit’s financial mess has asked for a valuation of the celebrated collection in the Detroit Institute of Arts, perhaps with a view to selling off its Van Goghs, Picassos, Matisses, Rembrandts and the rest, brought to mind remarks by former British Prime Minister Harold Macmillan about then-Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s privatization program”.(5)

An article by Helen Shen, titled “Chicago’s Field Museum Cuts Back on Science” stated: “The budget cuts will be accompanied by the dissolution, on 1 January, of the 120-year-old institution’s classical academic departments — zoology, botany, geology and anthropology — and by the shuffling of member scientists into a new, leaner organization, broadly titled Science and Education.” (6) If we recall correctly, the Benin artefacts had been under the supervision of the department of Anthropology.


Are African owners of artefacts in Western museums informed about the existing crisis and the possible effects on their rights?

We should also recall that the Field Museum and the Art Institute of Chicago, under James Cuno, had, for reasons of their own, not even had the decency to acknowledge receipt of a request for restitution from the Benin Royal House, which had been hand-carried to them in Chicago in September, 2008 (7)

In this connection, it should be remembered that a Dutch museum has declared its intension of selling specifically African artefacts in the museum because of

a reduction of government subsidy. (8) Besides, the British Museum has been known to sell Benin Bronzes even when it was not facing any particular financial difficulty. (9)  Now, museums as well as many other cultural institutions in Britain are now faced with further public funding cuts(10)


It would not be unreasonable to assume that many museums may be tempted to sell, loan, transfer, or exchange African artefacts such as the Benin Bronzes without anybody taking much notice of this act, especially since the museums have several artefacts they never or rarely display in public. How would we know, if they dispose of Benin artefacts when they refuse to inform the public about the number of Benin artefacts they have in their possession?


My main worry is with regard to the sale, transfer, using as security or in any way dealing with contested African artefacts that may in future prejudice or affect the rights of claiming African owners. Should the owners not be alerted about the conditions and location of their artefacts? Would transfer or sale not make it difficult for the owners to trace the whereabouts of the artefacts? Should they not seek legal advice and assistance from specialists in the countries where the artefacts are located to safeguard their interests? They could also examine the possibility of bringing actions in their own or other countries where some of the holders of the artefacts may have assetsCould they, for instance, seek an injunction or similar judicial orders from the courts to restrain the museums from selling, lending or transferring the artefacts or in anyway dealing with the contested objects that might affect the rights of the claiming owners?

Chief’s attendant blowing a side-horn Benin, Nigeria, now in Field Museum, Chicago, United States of America.


It is high time Nigeria and other States with claims to artefacts in Western museums issued a list or lists of the artefacts they wish to recover from the museums. The Cairo Conference on Restitution had recommended the issuance of such a list. (11). This list would serve as notice to potential purchasers of the artefacts so that in future no one can say they never knew that those objects had been looted or stolen. Any defence of good faith would be excluded.


The present time, when the tide is turning in favour of restitution of cultural objects and courts in countries such as the United States, are sympathetic to claimants, might also be propitious for seeking a judicial determination as to whether those Benin artefacts and other African art objects seized with violence in the colonial and imperialist ages, became the legal property of the violent predators. As far as one could tell, the matter has never been squarely put before any judicial body. Other relevant issues such as the applicability or non-applicability of the rules of limitation of actions to African artefacts seized in the colonial epoch could be clarified in the process. (12)


So far, with the exception of a Dutch museum,no one has with respect to the financial crisis of the museums raised the possibility of selling African artefacts but this may well facilitate selling them quietly without many persons realizing what has happened. We do not know what has happened or will happen to the Benin artefacts held by the Field Museum but we believe it is not unreasonable to seek information from the museum management, if they themselves do not prominently display what has been acquired at a heavy loss of lives in Benin.


If the Field Museum does not consider the Benin artefacts worthy to feature at their homepage, surely they should consider returning some of them back to the Oba and the people of Benin who have for decades been requesting the return of some of the artefacts violently looted by the British in 1897.




Kwame Opoku, 18 June, 2013.


Click for Full Size


Oba Ovonramwen, during whose reign the British looted the Benin artefacts with guards on board ship on his way to exile in Calabar in 1897. The gown he is wearing hides his shackles. Photograph by the Ibani Ijo photographer J A Green. From the Howie photo album in the archives of the Merseyside Maritime Museum.







1. ‘Die Rückgabe jener Kulturschätze, die unsere Museen und Sammlungen direkt oder indirekt dem Kolonialsystem verdanken und die jetzt zurückverlangt werden, sollte ebenfalls nicht mit billigen Argumenten und Tricks hinausgezögert werden’,

Gert v. Paczensky and Herbert Ganslmayr, Nofretete will nach Hause, p.185, C. Bertelsmann, München 1984.

2. Peju Layiwola, Art and the Restitution Question

  Wy Art Editions (2010)

  Ekpo Eyo, ‘Benin; The Sack that was’,

  David Gill, Some Thoughts on the Benin Bronzes

 Monday Midnite–1897 (Notorious B I G’s Dead Wrong REMIX


3. Philip J, C. Dark, The Art of Benin, A Catalogue of an Exhibition of the A. W.  F. Fuller and Chicago Natural History Museum Collections of Antiquities from Benin, Nigeria,1962.

Deanna Isaacs,“Plunder on Pedestal”’;

K.Opoku, Further Report from the exhibition “Benin-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria

4. K. Opoku, “Virtual Visits to Museums Holding Looted Benin Objects”, http://www.modernghana.coml

5. Detroit: Selling the family silver?”…/wapshot


7. K. Opoku, Formal Demand for the Return of Benin Bronzes: Will Western Museums now Return Some of the Looted/Stolen Benin Artefacts ?”  In response to a declaration by the Art Institute of Chicago and the Field Museum of their willingness to consider demands for the return of the Benin objects, the Benin Royal Family sent out a formal request dated 9 September, 2008, for the return of the cultural artefacts. In that letter Edun Agharese Akenzua, brother of the present Oba, Erediauwa, both great-grandsons of the famous king, Oba Ovonramwen, whose resistance to British hegemonial interferences led to conflict and eventual invasion, looting and burning of Benin City by the British army, recounted the history of the invasion of 1897 and explained the significance of the artefacts as records of Benin history. Thus looting those artefacts is also a deprivation of the records of Benin history. Up to today, neither the Field Museum nor the Art Institute of Chicago has had the decency to acknowledge receipt of the letter. This is presumably in order to be able to continue arguing that there has been no request for restitution, a favourable argument of Western museums.

8. K. Opoku, “Dutch Museum to Sell African Collection”,

9. Martin Bailey, “British Museum Sold Benin Bronzes”

BBC NEWS, Benin bronzes sold to Nigeria

The Guardian, “British Museum sold precious bronzes

Revelation adds pressure to return disputed treasures”

Crown Fraud: Stolen Benin Bronzes and British Museum


10. The Guardian, Arts organisations and museums face further funding cuts of £11.6m,

Flash Art, UK, Culture Minister confirms cultural funding fears

BBC News, 24.04.2013 Maria Miller:” Arts must make economic case”

 Paul Barford, British Museum Budget Cuts Loom? Portable Antiquities and Collecting Issues, 30 May, 2013.

Graeme Paton, Arts groups threatened by funding cuts – MP

  London Art Network British Museums Struggling With 25% Cuts

|   SAT 01.06.2013

British Museum reduces opening hours as budget cuts begin to

Some institutions may be in a desperate situation where they are threatened with 100% cut in museum funding. See conflict antiquities: “We won: Herefordshire’s campaign against the severing of museum funding”


11. K. Opoku, “Reflections on the Cairo Conference on Restitution: Encouraging Beginning”

The Conference on International Cooperation for the Protection and Repatriation of Cultural Heritage, 7-8 April 2010, Cairo, Egypt, organized by Zahi Hawass, was the first serious attempt by States with claims for restitution to coordinate their strategies and methods. It was attended by States from all continents: Austria, Bolivia, Chile, China, Cyprus, Ecuador, Greece, Guatemala, Honduras, India, Italy, Libya, Mexico, Nigeria, Peru, Poland, Russia, South Korea, Spain, Sri Lanka, Syria and the United States.


12. In this connection, it is important to recall that the provisions of recent conventions relevant to restitution do not specifically deal with the issue as regards artefacts looted in the colonial period in so far as the conventions deal only with matters occurring after their entry into force. Thus the misleading impression often given that the conventions constitute an obstacle to claims dating to the colonial period must be rejectedSee K. Opoku, “Benin Plan of Action (2): Will this Miserable Project be the Last word on the Looted Benin Artefacts?

Lyndel. V. Prott, in his Commentary on the UNIDROIT Convention (1997, Institute of Art and Law) statesIt is important to note that all these limitation provisions will only apply to claims under the UNIDROIT Convention. The Convention is not retroactive (Article (10). They do not provide any cutoff for other claims, such as those arising out o f displacements during and immediately after World War IIor in colonial times, which can still be pursued by other means, such as bilateral negotiations or through the UNESCO Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to its Countries of Origin or its Restitution in Case of Illicit Appropriation”. p. 39.

Patrick J. O’Keefe, in his Commentary on the 1970 UNESCO Convention (Institute of Art and Law        , 2007) writing on limitation period, states “Essentially this is a period of time after which the holder of an object cannot have his or her possession challenged by legal action. There is nothing in the 1970 Convention on this matter.” p. 27.


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