August 31, 2020

No one knows the true number of bronzes but there are believed to be at least 3,000 scattered around the world, but the true number that were looted and stolen by the British colonisers may never be known.

The Benin Bronzes are not just virtuoso works of art – they record the kingdom’s history, Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, Apollo Magazine

In the Edo language, the verb sa-e-y-ama means ‘to remember’, but its literal translation is ‘to cast a motif in bronze’. At the court of Benin, art in bronze perpetuates memory; traditionally, the first commissions of every Benin king are sculptures in bronze and ivory for his father’s memorial altar. The great aesthetic and historical significance of these artworks to the people of Benin raises the question: who should be able to access and enjoy them? Since 2007, the Benin Dialogue Group, a consortium composed of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, delegates of the Oba (king) of Benin, and curators of African art at European museums, has been debating the future of Benin art held in Europe. It has recently determined that European institutions will loan important pieces on a rotating basis to Nigeria for a permanent display, at a museum purpose-built to display the art of Benin that will open in 2021.

The art of Benin entered European collections primarily as the result of the British occupation of Benin City in 1897 during the reign of Oba Ovonramwen (r. 1888–97). By August 1898, most of the ivory and bronze artworks seized by the British from the royal treasury had been sold in large public auctions. Felix von Luschan, a curator at the Berlin Ethnographic Museum, trying to explain his interest in the Benin Bronzes to an audience more familiar with European art, famously compared them to the work of a celebrated Italian Renaissance sculptor, stating, ‘Benvenuto Cellini could not have made a better cast himself, and no one has before or since, even to the present day. These bronzes stand even at the summit of what can be technically achieved.’ By 1901, nearly all of the bronzes had been swept into public and private collections in the United Kingdom, Germany and Austria. The Obas of Benin have been asking for their return for decades.

Casting in bronze – or more accurately, brass, bronze, and sometimes copper – began in Benin before the 13th century, and large-scale artworks were first commissioned under Oba Ewuare I (r. c. 1440-70s). Commemorative heads made for royal altars date back to the 16th century, if not earlier. From the 18th century onwards, artists carved scenes into the ivory tusks that had always surmounted the bronze heads, providing greater visual reference to the life’s work of the honoured Oba. Artists also cast sculptures of messengers, vanquished enemies, and foreign allies to celebrate the lives of departed kings through altar tableaux.Head of an Oba (1550–1680), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria.

Head of an Oba (1550–1680), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

In addition to art intended for memorial altars, there are also more than 850 reliefs that once sheathed the columns of the Oba’s audience court in Benin City. They were probably commissioned by Ewuare’s grandson, Oba Esigie (r. 1517–c. 1550), after a bruising civil war and a subsequent attempted invasion of Benin by the kingdom of Idah. The plaques depict the ideal relationship between a king and his court at a time of serious political division. Esigie’s son Orhogbua (r. c. 1550–70s), who likely completed the commission, may have added plaques that record the Idah war as well as religious rites, processions, battles, the payment of taxes, and other regular activities of the court. Oba Esigie so valued the importance of art as a tool of governance that he raised the head of the royal casting guild to the level of privy counsellor within the court hierarchy.Plaque depicting warrior and attendants (16th–17th century), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria.

Plaque depicting warrior and attendants (16th–17th century), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria. Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The casting techniques Benin artists developed over the centuries are marvellous. Artists created forms in wax models and used a layer of extremely fine clay to invest (surround) the waxwork, before adding layers of coarser clay to form a mould. The final sculpture was then created from the mould using the lost-wax method. Due to the artists’ care in the original modelling and investiture of the sculptures, they did not chase patterns or details into the bronze after casting. The texture of luxury cloth and damask, fine woven ropes and braids, intricate bells and other minute details were all first formed in wax. Some Benin artworks display an even greater virtuosity. A mounted rider held in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a masterpiece: the artist cast the base, the rider, and the horse’s caparisons in pure copper, while the horse is cast in bronze, creating a play of colour between the two metals. Given the different melting temperatures of copper and brass, this sculpture is evidence of the caster’s complete mastery of the medium.Mounted ruler (so-called horseman), Benin

Mounted ruler (16th century), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria. Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Prince Edun Akenzua, son of Oba Akenzua II, is a frequent spokesman for the kingdom at international art openings. In 2010, he eloquently summed up the palace’s protests: ‘Nobody in this world, except the people of Benin, can imagine the intrinsic value of the works or understand their relevance and meaning, no matter how much he may admire the aesthetics, the brilliance, or the magnificence of these works.’ The loan agreement negotiated by the Benin Dialogue Group is an important step toward providing the people of Benin with access to these storied collections.

British Museum: The Benin Bronzes

What are they?

The ‘Benin Bronzes’ (made of brass and bronze) are a group of sculptures which include elaborately decorated cast plaques, commemorative heads, animal and human figures, items of royal regalia, and personal ornaments. They were created from at least the 16th century onwards in the West African Kingdom of Benin, by specialist guilds working for the royal court of the Oba (king) in Benin City. The Kingdom also supported guilds working in other materials such as ivory, leather, coral and wood, and the term ‘Benin Bronzes’ is sometimes used to refer to historic objects produced using these other materials.

Carved ivory armlet inlaid with brass. Depicts the Oba between inlaid brass plaques.

Many pieces were commissioned specifically for the ancestral altars of past Obas and Queen Mothers. They were also used in other rituals to honour the ancestors and to validate the accession of a new Oba. A key element of the Benin Bronzes are the plaques which once decorated the Benin Royal Palace and which provide an important historical record of the Kingdom of Benin. This includes dynastic history, as well as social history, and insights into its relationships with neighbouring societies. The Benin Bronzes are preceded by earlier West African cast brass traditions, dating back into the medieval period.

British soldiers with objects looted from the royal palace 
during the military expedition to Benin City in 1897.

One element of the history of the Kingdom of Benin represented within the Bronzes is the kingdom’s early contacts with Europeans. Trade and diplomatic contacts between Benin and Portugal developed on the West African coast from the 15th century. These early connections included Portuguese and Benin emissaries voyaging between the capitals and courts of Benin and Portugal as these two powers negotiated their new relationship.

There are around 900 objects from the historic Kingdom of Benin in the British Museum’s collection. Over 100 can be seen in a permanent changing display within the Museum’s galleries. Objects from Benin are also lent regularly around the world. The British Museum’s collections additionally include a range of archival documentation and photographic collections relating to the Benin Bronzes and their collection history.

Where are they from?

The Benin Bronzes come from Benin City, the historic capital of the Kingdom of Benin, a major city state in West Africa from the medieval period. Benin became part of the British Empire from 1897 to 1960 and is now within the Federal Republic of Nigeria.

Today the modern city of Benin (in Edo State) is the home of the current ruler of the Kingdom of Benin, His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II. Many of the rituals and ceremonies associated with the historic Kingdom of Benin continue to be performed today. 

 ‘Benin Bronze’ plaque showing the king (Oba) in regalia and
with symbols of royal power (c.16th–17th century).

How did the objects come to the British Museum?

By the end of the 19th century, the Nigerian coast and its trade were largely dominated by the British. It is in the context of this emerging colonial power that the Benin Bronzes came to the British Museum. (Editor’s note: they were looted and stolen by the British, from Nigeria).

During the second half of the 19th century, the balance of power between West African kingdoms like Benin and the European nations they traded with shifted massively towards European control. In the late 19th century, industrialised European nations accompanied by new military technologies began to exert greater power across the African continent. This political and commercial movement developed into the territorial land-grab known as the ‘Scramble for Africa’.

A further fundamental context that needs to be recognised for fully understanding this period of West African history is the transatlantic slave trade. This vast traffic in humans supplied labour to the colonies and plantations in the Americas, including those of Britain. While by the late 19th century this trade had been largely abolished, its increasing scale and barbarity in the preceding centuries had led to a massive impact on West African societies.

The desire to further extend British power and influence in the region ultimately led to a clash with the Kingdom of Benin. The gradual expansion by the British into territory neighbouring the kingdom and an increasing reluctance to accept Benin’s trading conditions created an atmosphere of distrust and animosity. In January 1897 an allegedly peaceful but clearly provocative British trade mission was attacked on its way to Benin City, leading to the deaths of 230 of the mission’s African carriers and seven British delegates. This incident triggered the launch of a large-scale retaliatory military expedition by the British against the Kingdom of Benin. Benin City was overrun and occupied by British forces in February 1897. 

Mounted ruler (16th century), Edo peoples, Benin kingdom, Nigeria.  Courtesy Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Benin suffered a bloody and devastating occupation. No exact figure can be given for the number of Benin’s population who were killed in the conquest of the city. However, it is clear that there were many casualties during the sustained fighting. The occupation of Benin City saw widespread destruction and pillage by British forces. Along with other monuments and palaces, the Royal Palace was burned and destroyed. Its shrines and associated compounds were looted by British forces, and thousands of objects of ceremonial and ritual value were taken to the UK as official ‘spoils of war’ or distributed among members of the expedition according to their rank. This included a range of objects removed from shrines, among which were ceremonial brass heads of former Oba’s and their associated ivory tusks. This also included more than 900 brass plaques, dating largely to the 16–17th century, found in a storage room within the palace. Having previously decorated the palace walls, these plaques were key historic records for the Benin Court and kingdom, enabling illustration of historic practices and traditions. Following the occupation, the Oba was later captured and sent into exile, while a number of Benin chiefs were executed. Justified as legitimate military action against a ‘barbarous’ kingdom, this brutal, violent colonial episode effectively marked the end of the independent Kingdom of Benin.

A carved ivory mask, worn by the oba, or ruler, of Benin during ceremonies, now in the collection of the British Museum.
Credit…Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times

In the autumn of 1897, the British Museum displayed 304 Benin plaques on loan from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs and subsequently petitioned successfully to receive 203 of these as a donation. The majority of the remaining plaques were sold to UK and German museums and to private dealers, while a few were retained by the Foreign Office. Other early collections were purchased or donated by members of the Benin expedition.

British Museum, London.

The collection only grew to its current size following the acquisition of major private collections, such as that of Harry Beasley in 1944, William Oldman in 1949 and Sir Henry Wellcome in 1954. In 1950 and 1951 the Museum sold, exchanged or donated some of the Benin plaques to the Colony and Protectorate of Nigeria (25 in number) and the government of the Gold Coast (1). These were subsequently placed within newly established West African museums. At the time these objects were seen as ‘duplicates’ of other objects retained in the collection, something which later research has shown to be incorrect. A further number of such plaques (12) were sold to or exchanged with private dealers and collectors between 1950 and 1972.

British Museum, London.

What has been requested?

While no formal written request has been received for the return of the Museum’s Benin collections in their entirety, the Benin Royal Court has made various public statements asking for Benin collections to be returned.

British Museum, London

These requests have been framed within the context of longstanding dialogues with the Museum, including during the visit of the Director of the British Museum to the Benin Royal Court in August 2018. 

Status of discussions

The Museum has positive relationships with the royal court in Benin City and with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments(Opens in new window) (NCMM).

The Museum’s Director, Hartwig Fischer, visited Nigeria in August 2018. He met with senior Museum colleagues in Lagos and Benin City and had an audience with His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II which included discussion of new opportunities for sharing and displaying objects from the Kingdom of Benin. During that visit His Royal Majesty Oba Ewuare II repeated his request for Benin collections to be returned. He also acknowledged, however, that the objects serve as ‘cultural ambassadors’ for Benin culture when displayed internationally.

The British Museum is also a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, a working group bringing together museum representatives from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden and the United Kingdom with key representatives from Nigeria, including the Benin Royal Court and NCMM.

A central objective for the Benin Dialogue Group is to work together to establish a new museum in Benin City to facilitate a new permanent display of Benin works of art, including significant collections of works currently in UK and European museums. 

The British Museum’s position

The British Museum has excellent long-term working relationships with Nigerian colleagues and institutions, particularly through the Africa Programme which has provided an important framework for colleagues to share skills and expertise. These enduring partnerships have enabled the Museum to engage in sustained and open dialogues concerning the Benin collections.

The Museum is committed to active engagement with Nigerian institutions concerning the Benin Bronzes, including pursuing and supporting new initiatives developed in collaboration with Nigerian partners and colleagues.

This includes full participation in the Benin Dialogue Group and working towards the aim of facilitating a new permanent display of Benin works of art in Benin City, to include works from the British Museum’s collections. The Museum is also a fully committed partner within the Digital Benin(Opens in new window) initiative, focused on developing an online tool and database to digitally reunite as many as possible of the historical objects, documents, and photographs that illuminate the Benin Kingdom.

The Museum is also committed to thorough and open investigation of Benin collection histories, and engagement with wider contemporary dialogues within which these collections are positioned. This includes fully acknowledging and understanding the colonial history which provided the key context for the development of the Museum’s Benin collections.

Where else can they be seen?

In Nigeria objects from the Kingdom of Benin are housed in the collections of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM)(Opens in new window), and displayed in museums in Benin City and in Lagos. However, the most significant collections are held outside Nigeria.

Various other institutions holding Benin collections are found around the world, including in the USA where there are important collections in Chicago, Boston, New York, Denver and Philadelphia.

British Museum, London

Along with the British Museum and the Ethnologisches Museum(Opens in new window), Berlin, the following European and UK Museums with collections from the Kingdom of Benin are also participants in the Benin Dialogue Group: Weltmuseum(Opens in new window), Vienna, Austria; Museum am Rothenbaum(Opens in new window), Hamburg, Germany; Staatliche Kunstammlungen(Opens in new window), Dresden, Germany; Museum für Völkerkunde(Opens in new window), Dresden, Germany; GRASSI Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig(Opens in new window), Leipzig, Germany; Linden-Museum(Opens in new window), Stuttgart, Germany; Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen(Opens in new window), Netherlands; Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology,(Opens in new window) Cambridge, UK; Pitt Rivers Museum(Opens in new window), Oxford, UK; National Museums Scotland(Opens in new window), UK.

This Art Was Looted 123 Years Ago. Will It Ever Be Returned? New York Times, Alex Marshall, 27.01.2020

The Benin Bronzes, some of Africa’s greatest treasures, were looted in 1897. After a chance encounter, two men made it their mission to return them.

A display of Benin Bronzes at the British Museum in London. The artifacts were looted by British troops in the 19th century and are now scattered worldwide.
A display of Benin Bronzes at the British Museum in London. The artifacts were looted by British troops in the 19th century and are now scattered worldwide.Credit…Lauren Fleishman for The New York Times

In 2004, Steve Dunstone and Timothy Awoyemi stood on a boat on the bank of the River Niger.

A pendant mask at the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Items from the Benin Bronzes are in major museums and private collections.Credit…Andrea Mohin/The New York Times

The two middle-aged men, both police officers in Britain, were taking part in a journey through Nigeria, organized through the Police Expedition Society, and had reached the small town of Agenebode, in the country’s south. Their group brought gifts with them from British schoolchildren, including books and supplies. The local schools had been alerted in advance, and a crowd came down to the river banks to meet them; there was even a dance performance.

It was a wonderful — if slightly overwhelming — welcome, Mr. Dunstone recalled.

In the back of the crowd, Mr. Awoyemi, who was born in Britain and grew up in Nigeria, noticed two men holding what looked like political placards. They didn’t come forward, he said. But just as the boat was about to push off, one of the men suddenly clambered down toward it.

“He had a mustache, scruffy stubble, about 38 to 40, thin build,” Mr. Dunstone recalled recently. “He was wearing a white vest,” he added.

Carved tusks in Benin City, taken as loot by the British in 1897, according to Capt. Herbert Sutherland Walker’s diary.Credit…Capt. Herbert Sutherland Walker, via Mark Walker

The man reached out his arm across the water and handed Mr. Dunstone a note, then hurried off with barely a word.

That night, Mr. Dunstone pulled the note from his pocket. Written on it were just six words: “Please help return the Benin Bronzes.”

At the time, he didn’t know what it meant. But that note was the beginning of a 10-year mission that would take Mr. Dunstone and Mr. Awoyemi from Nigeria to Britain and back again, involve the grandson of one of the British soldiers responsible for the looting, and see the pair embroiled in a debate about how to right the wrongs of the colonial past that has drawn in politicians, diplomats, historians and even a royal family.

Rows of artifacts taken in the raid. Prior to being stolen, the artifacts were used in altar displays to represent departed people like obas or queen mothers.Credit…Capt. Herbert Sutherland Walker, via Mark Walker

By the end, Mr. Dunstone and Mr. Awoyemi would have done more to return looted art to Nigeria — with two small artifacts — than some of the world’s leading museums, where the debate over the right of return continues.

The Benin Bronzes are not actually from the country of Benin; they come from the ancient Kingdom of Benin, now in southern Nigeria.

They’re also not made from bronze. The various artifacts we call the Benin Bronzes include carved elephant tusks and ivory leopard statues, even wooden heads. The most famous items are 900 brass plaques, dating mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries, once nailed to pillars in Benin’s royal palace.

Officers from the British raid pose in Benin City in 1897, with some of the bronzes in the background. Captain Walker can be seen in the back row, second from the right.Credit…Capt. Herbert Sutherland Walker, via Mark Walker

You can find Benin Bronzes in many of the West’s great museums, including the British Museum in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. They’re in smaller museums, too. The Lehman, Rockefeller, Ford and de Rothschild families have owned some. So did Pablo Picasso.

Their importance was appreciated in Europe from the moment they were first seen there in 1890s. Curators at the British Museum compared them at that time with the best of Italian and Greek sculpture.

Piles of ceremonial tusks taken by the British in Benin City in 1897, according to Captain Walker, who wrote the caption “more loot” below the photo in his diary.Credit…Capt. Herbert Sutherland Walker, via Mark Walker

Today, the artifacts still leave people dumbstruck. Neil MacGregor, the British Museum’s former director, has called them “great works of art” and “triumphs of metal casting.”

There’s one place, however, where few of the original artifacts are found: Benin City, where they were made.

An undated, carved elephant tusk from Benin, held in the collection of the British Museum.Credit…Suzanne Plunkett for The New York Times

That may change. Benin’s royal family and the Nigerian local and national governments plan to open a museum in Benin City in 2023 with at least 300 Benin Bronzes. Currently the site is a bit of land that’s little more than a traffic island.

Those pieces will come mainly from the collections of 10 major European museums, such as the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, the Weltmuseum in Vienna and the British Museum. They will initially be on loan for three years, with the possibility to renew. Or, when those loans run out, other Benin Bronzes could replace them. The museum could become a rotating display of the kingdom’s art.

An archivist’s note, written when the tusk was taken into the British Museum collection in 1897. It says the tusk came from “Expedition 1897” in Benin City.Credit…Suzanne Plunkett for The New York Times

This hugely complex initiative — organized through the Benin Dialogue Group, which first convened in 2010 — is being celebrated as a chance for people in Nigeria to see part of their cultural heritage. “I want people to be able to understand their past and see who we were,” said Godwin Obaseki, governor of Edo State, home to Benin City, and a key figure in the project.

But is the Benin plan — a new museum filled with loans — a more practical solution than a full-scale return, long called for by many Nigerians and by some activists? That probably depends on what you think about how the Benin Bronzes were obtained in the first place.

On Jan. 2, 1897, James Phillips, a British official, set out from the coast of Nigeria to visit the oba, or ruler, of the Kingdom of Benin.

News reports said he took a handful of colleagues with him, and it’s assumed he went to persuade the oba to stop interrupting British trade. (He had written to colonial administrators, asking for permission to overthrow the oba, but was turned down.)

When Phillips was told the oba couldn’t see him because a religious festival was taking place, he went anyway.

He didn’t come back.

For the Benin Kingdom, the killing of Phillips and most of his party had huge repercussions. Within a month, Britain sent 1,200 soldiers to take revenge.

On Feb. 18, the British Army took Benin City in a violent raid. The news reports — including in The New York Times — were full of colonial jubilation. None of the reports mentioned that the British forces also used the opportunity to loot the city of its artifacts.

At least one British soldier was “wandering round with a chisel & hammer, knocking off brass figures & collecting all sorts of rubbish as loot,” Capt. Herbert Sutherland Walker, a British officer, wrote in his diary.

“All the stuff of any value found in the King’s palace, & surrounding houses, has been collected,” he added.

Within months, much of the bounty was in England. The artifacts were given to museums, or sold at auction, or kept by soldiers for their mantelpieces. Four items — including two ivory leopards — were given to Queen Victoria. Soon, many artifacts ended up elsewhere in Europe, and in the United States, too.

“We were once a mighty empire,” said Charles Omorodion, 62, an accountant who grew up in Benin City but now lives in Britain and has worked to get the pieces returned from British museums. “There were stories told about who we were, and these objects showed our strength, our identity,” he said.

He said that seeing the Benin Bronzes in the world’s museums filled him with pride, as they showed visitors how great the Benin Kingdom had been. But, he added, he also felt frustration, bitterness and anger about their being kept outside his country. “It’s not just they were stolen,” he said, “it’s that you can see them being displayed and sold at a price.”

Benin City has been calling for the return of its artifacts for decades. But a key moment came in the 1970s when the organizers of a major festival of black art and culture in Lagos, Nigeria, asked the British Museum for one prized item: a 16th-century ivory mask of a famous oba’s mother.

They wanted to borrow the work, to serve as the centerpiece of the 1977 event, but the British Museum said it was too fragile to travel. Nigeria’s news media told a different story, reporting that the British government had asked for $3 million insurance, a cost so high it was seen as a slap in the face.

That incident is still fresh in some Nigerians’ minds, more than 40 years later. At a recent meeting of the Benin Union of the United Kingdom, an expatriate group that meets at a church in south London, several members brought up versions of the festival incident when asked about the Benin Bronzes. Then they started criticizing British museums, which they said never seemed willing to return stolen items, despite repeated requests.

“I wouldn’t go there,” said Julie Omoregie, 61, when asked if she’d ever been to the British Museum, a half-hour away by subway, to see the mask. It was “an insult” that it was in the museum, she said. When she was a child, she recalled, her father would sing her a song about the raid, and she would cry every time. “It is time for them to give us back what they took from us,” she said.

David Omoregie, 64, another member of the group, said “The British are very good at telling you, ‘We are looking after it. If you’d been looking after it, it would have been stolen by now.’”

He agreed with that once, he said, but he didn’t anymore: “You can leave your car to rot outside your drive; at least it’s your car,” he added.

Some pieces stolen in the raid have gone back to Nigeria from institutions. In the 1950s, the British Museum sold several plaques to Nigeria for a planned museum in Lagos, for instance, and sold others on the open market. But those were not the free, full-scale returns people call for now.

Pressure for those types of returns has grown recently. In 2016, students at Jesus College, part of Cambridge University, campaigned to have a statue of a cockerel removed from the hall where it had been displayed for years. Last November, the college announced that the cockerel must be returned. (It has yet to say when or how.)

In the United States too, students have protested the presence of a Benin Bronze at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum. The museum has said it is looking to return the item, but was struggling to find out whom to actually work with: the Nigerian government, the Benin royal family or others.

But nothing has publicly gone back to Nigeria in decades, except, that is, for two small items. And, that’s thanks, at least in part, to Mr. Awoyemi and Mr. Dunstone.

When Mr. Dunstone got back to England from Nigeria, he couldn’t shake that note from his mind: “Please help return the Benin Bronzes.”

He didn’t even know what they were, he recalled recently, but Mr. Awoyemi did — he’d learned all about them and the 1897 raid as a teenager in Nigeria — and he filled Mr. Dunstone in.

Mr. Dunstone simply couldn’t understand why Britain still had the Benin artifacts, he said. That feeling grew one day when he went to the British Museum to look at its collection. He was blown away by the 50-odd plaques on display, and more so when a security guard told him that there were 1,000 more items in the basement. (In fact, the museum owns around 900 items from Benin, and many are in storage in another building.)

“We really did steal them,” Mr. Dunstone, now 61, said. “We weren’t at war, we turned up and hacked them off the walls.”

In 2006, Mr. Dunstone created a web page about the Benin Bronzes, with Mr. Awoyemi’s input. He added a note at the bottom of the page asking anyone with information about the whereabouts of any items to get in touch. The two men, who became friends as colleagues in the police force protecting the British royal family, even wrote to the oba in Benin and the Nigerian government, asking for permission to act as envoys to Britain’s museums to try and get the artifacts back to Nigeria.

No one replied, Mr. Awoyemi, 52, said. “We were so passionate,” he added, “but we were becoming frustrated with the whole thing.”

Mr. Awoyemi and Mr. Dunstone were just about to give up when, one day, in 2013, an email arrived. It was from a doctor from Wales named Mark Walker. Mr. Walker said he owned two of the looted items: a small bird that used to be on top of a staff, and a bell that had been struck to summon ancestors.

He wanted to give them back.

Mr. Walker, 72, is now retired and spends much of his time sailing. His grandfather was Captain Walker, who described the looting in his diary and took the pieces during the 1897 raid. They were once used as doorstops, Mr. Walker said, but after he inherited them they sat on a bookshelf, gathering dust. They’d be better off in Nigeria with the culture that created them, he said.

“My view is the British Museum should use modern technology to make perfect casts of its whole collection and send it all back,” he said recently. “You wouldn’t know the difference.”

At first, Mr. Walker didn’t want to go to Nigeria, afraid, Mr. Awoyemi said, that he might be prosecuted for having had them at all. But Mr. Awoyemi and Mr. Dunstone convinced him that the publicity from such a bold move could lead others to return items.

The Nigerian Embassy in London agreed to sponsor the trip, but pulled out when Mr. Walker insisted the items had to be returned directly to Benin City and the current oba, rather than to Nigeria’s president, Mr. Awoyemi said.

So Mr. Dunstone and Mr. Awoyemi mounted an amateur public relations campaign, securing appearances for themselves on radio and TV, to help raise the funds and show the royal court in Benin City that they were serious.

It worked.

In June 2014, Mr. Walker, Mr. Dunstone and Mr. Awoyemi headed to Benin City to return the artifacts to the oba.

The ceremony at the oba’s palace was as overwhelming as the welcome on the river bank that had begun the whole journey, Mr. Dunstone said. It was filled with so many dignitaries and journalists, there was initially no room for him.

Mr. Walker said he handed over the objects quickly, without fuss. In return, the oba gave him, just as calmly, a tray of gifts, including a modern sculpture of a leopard head’s that weighed about 20 pounds.

“I was horrified,” Mr. Walker said. “I’d gone all that way to get rid of stuff, not get more.”

If there aren’t more individuals like Mr. Walker on the horizon, looking to give unwanted artifacts back, is the new museum full of items on loan the best Benin City can hope for?


Nigerian government officials have played down the need for items to be permanently returned. Mr. Obaseki, the state governor, said at a news conference at the British Museum last year: “These works are ambassadors. They represent who we are, and we feel we should take advantage of them to create a connection with the world.” His message: Nigeria wants them on display in the world’s museums, not just in Benin City.

Some museums do appear open to returning looted objects permanently, rather than lending them. Last March, the National Museum of World Cultures in the Netherlands launched a policy to consider claims for cultural objects acquired during colonial times.

Nigeria could claim the museum’s 170 or so artifacts from Benin City under the policy, if it proves that the items had been “involuntarily separated” from their rightful owners, or that the items are of such value to Nigeria that it “outweighs all benefits of retention by the national collection in the Netherlands.”

German museums have agreed to a similar policy.

Given how many Benin Bronzes are in Western museums, it seems likely some requests made under those policies would be accepted.

Until the museum in Benin City is built, however, nothing is likely to be returned permanently unless it is done by individuals. No one has a firm idea how many looted items are in private hands, but they used to regularly come up at auction. (The record price, set in 2016, is well over $4 million.)

Mr. Dunstone said he had hoped that dozens of people would have come forward with items to return by now. The ceremony in 2014 received a flurry of media attention, and he went back to England expecting new Mr. Walkers to appear.

It didn’t happen. He got one email from a man in South Africa who claimed to have fished a Benin Bronze out of a river. He was willing to mail it to Mr. Dunstone for $2,500.

Mr. Dunstone, ever the police officer, suspected a scam and didn’t write back.

“I’m less proactive now,” he said. “But my heart’s still open.”

Mr. Awoyemi said he was disappointed, too, that no one came forward, but was excited by the museum plan. He was even willing to help with security, he said, if the oba would let him.

Mr. Walker can’t put the Benin Bronzes behind him, either. A few months ago, he was looking online at Benin Bronzes held by the Horniman Museum in London and came across an intricately carved wooden paddle. It was almost identical to two he had in his home, which he thought his parents had bought on vacation.

Then he realized his grandfather must have looted them from Benin City, too.

In December, he lent the paddles to the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford — a member of the Benin Dialogue Group — with one condition: They had to be returned to Benin City within three years.

He wasn’t going to be getting on a plane with Mr. Dunstone and Mr. Awoyemi this time. “It would be harder to get two six-foot paddles through customs,” he said. He also didn’t want his motives questioned. He wasn’t returning the items for glory, he said: They should just go back. It’s the right thing to do.

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