In 1996 Prince Godfrey Eweka Akenzua II was appointed the leader of Benin Kingdom’s centenary anniversary of the 1897 invasion on Benin. Ever since, he has remained the arrowhead of the people’s global campaign for repatriation of their looted artifacts, scattered around the world. Nigerian Compass’ Art Correspondent, EMMANUEL AGOZINO, visited Prince Akenzua’s palace in Benin City, Edo state and discussed the current development around the Sotheby’s proposed sale of Queen Idia Mask with him.
PRince, from your angle, what is the issue?
A reputable arts gallery and auctioneers in London, Sotheby are mobilising to sell an ivory plaque, one among the 3000 bronze and ivory, art works looted from my great-grandfather’s palace in Benin City by the British. Listed in this proposed sale is the Queen Idia mask. Putting out the objects for sale are the great-grand children of one Lt. Col. Galway, who was with the British troops that invaded Benin and looted the palace in 1897. After the looting, the Bitish organised an auction sale in Liverpool. The bulk of the objects were sold there, thus scattering them all over the world.
Galway was the Deputy Commissioner and Vice-Consul in the so called Oil River Protectorate which the British just established in the newly acquired West African territories. There is no record of how many pieces of the bronze and ivory that were retained by the British who remained behind after the objects were carted away. The Britons kept some of the works for themselves. Galway was one of them. Now his great-grand children wants to sell the cultural property their father stole from my great-grandfather, thus hoping to rake in about £6m (pounds sterling) to boost their crumbling business empire.
Do they know the history of the plaque they wants to sell? Do they know its origin? Do they know what it means to the owners? Do they think the plaque is a prize their great-grandfather won from the Boar War or what?
“These questions leave the Galway descendants, indeed the British and all those countries where the Benin bronze are held in captivity today, with a moral burden.
“The battle to retrieve the stolen artifacts has been on for more than two decades, led by my brother, the present Oba of Benin, Omo n’ Oba n’ Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Erediauwa, CFR. The Oba lives at present in the palace where the looting took place. He inaugurated a committee in 1996 to commemorate the centenary anniversary of the dastardly invasion on Benin. I was the chair of that committee. In that capacity, I testified before the British House of Commons’ committee on Illegally Acquired Artifacts. I told to the committee that what the British looted was not just works of art but objects of worship and the instruments or medium for recording our history. Hence, taking them away was like tearing off chapters from our history book.
The on-going Galway-Sotheby’s transaction is not the first time descendants of those who stole the Benin bronzes have sold or attempted to sell them to raise funds for their business. Within the past two decades, not less than five such pieces have been sold. However, what makes the Galway and Sotheby proposed sale remarkable is that Sotheby is hoping to make a record 6 million pounds, for the descendants of the man who actually participated in this naked and criminal looting.
“The Centenary committee which the Oba set up was mandated to collaborate with all those who work for the liberation of the stolen cultural properties. I worked closely with eminent persons in this campaign; one of such men was the Hon. Bernie Grant, a member of the British Parliament. Apart from his activities as a parliamentarian, he was chair of the UK and Europe chapter of African Reparation Movement (ARM) which was established by the Nigerian Government then headed by former military President, Gen. Ibrahim Babangida (rtd).
Together, we addressed the world through the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) in 1996. We appealed to the Scottish authorities to release some of the objects in their custody and planned a meeting with Edward Heath, one time Prime Minister of Britain to appeal to him to release the bronzes in his private collection. In the cause of our investigation, we were told that an Act of Parliament, enacted about 75 years ago then, protected the British Museum from parting with the objects in its custody. Grant’s strategy was to cultivate a caucus in the Parliament and get it to sponsor a Bill to repeal the Act.
Meanwhile countries of the world whose cultural properties had been illicitly traded, put pressure on the British government to investigate the illicit acquisition. Reacting to the pressure, Parliament set up a committee to investigate the illicit transaction. The committee was to sit in March 2000. Grant and I were to present memoranda to it. We planned to meet Mr. Heath after that. Tragically Grant died before we testified, but I presented my memorandum to the House Committee. The ethnography Museum of Vienna, Austria, in collaboration with France, Germany and United States mounted an exhibition of the looted Benin bronzes in 2007. Some of the Benin bronzes in the collaborating countries were sent down to Vienna. I attended the exhibition and had the privileged to address the august gathering at the opening night. I appealed to the Austrian authorities to support the call by the Oba of Benin for the return of his looted property.
The appeal to the Austrian authorities, in my opinion, was apt because the Austrians themselves, suffered a similar fate when Nazi Germany under Adolf Hitler seized several paintings and gold in that country during World War II. The German Government has now returned the paintings and gold. But the descendants of the Jews could no longer be traced, so the authorities sold the paintings in Vienna and with the proceeds established an education trust for Jews. The Austrians therefore know how it feels to be deprived of ones cultural properties and the joy of having them retrieved.
I made a similar appeal to the authorities in Chicago in 2007 and in Stockholm, Sweden in November 2008. I appealed again now to the British and to all people with good conscience to stop the proposed February sale and urged the descendants of Lt. Col Galway to be bold enough and return the ivory plaque to Benin. Tell them that it does not belong to them.”