Oxford University identifies 145 artefacts looted in Benin raid

Plundered items likely to be returned to Nigeria include plaques, bronze figures and musical instruments

The University of Oxford is holding 145 objects looted by British troops during an assault on the city of Benin in 1897 that are likely to be repatriated to Nigeria, a report has said.

More than two-thirds of the plundered items are owned by the university’s Pitt Rivers Museum, and 45 are on loan. They include brass plaques, bronze figures, carved ivory tusks, musical instruments, weaving equipment, jewellery, and ceramic and coral objects dating to the 13th century.

A further 15 objects may have been taken during the military raid but their provenance has not been established, an interim report by Dan Hicks, a curator at the museum, said.

“The work of restitution begins in part with the sharing of knowledge,” said the report. “The restitution of African cultural heritage is of the utmost importance in the 2020s.” Moves by museums “to embrace the importance of transparency about looted African collections” were welcome.

Dan Hicks
Dan Hicks (right) at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Photograph: Alecsandra Raluca Drăgoi/The Guardian

Last month, Jesus College, Cambridge and Aberdeen University became the first British institutions to return Benin bronzes to Nigeria. Germany has also agreed to hand back Benin bronzes next year.

Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s minister of information and culture, said: “We look forward to a similar return of our artefacts by other institutions that are in possession of them.”

About 10,000 objects looted during the raid on Benin are held in 165 museums and many private collections across the world. The British Museum in London holds 900 objects, the largest collection in the world.

One of the bronzes in the Pitt Rivers Museum
One of the artefacts held by the museum. Photograph: Dan Hicks/Pitt Rivers Museum

The 145 objects in the care of the Pitt Rivers Museum represented less than 1.5% of the objects taken in the attack, Hicks’ report noted.

It said: “The chaotic theft of royal and sacred artworks and other items by perhaps up to two hundred soldiers, sailors and administrators during the sacking of Benin City in the British naval expedition of 1897 is one of the most well-known examples of the widespread practice of military looting by European troops in the later 19th and early 20th centuries.”

Earlier this year, a statement from Oxford University said the Pitt Rivers Museum had been “working with Nigerian stakeholders … to identify best ways forward regarding the care and return of these objects”.

The work was part of efforts to “identify collections that were taken as part of military violence or looting, or otherwise contentious circumstances and engage in conversations with external partners about the future care of these objects”.

Contributor

Harriet Sherwood Arts and culture correspondent

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