Well done! Nigerians commend colonial family who backpedalled on sale of gem at British auction

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Nigerians across the world have commended the effort of a British family who has retracted its decision to sell at a UK auction  some Nigeria’s historic  most priced artefacts, currently in saves and aimed at making financial fortunes for the family.

The star sale of the collection is the popular Idia Mask which had been craved for by Nigeria’s government during FESTAC 77 and which the British refused to release for the International world as the festival symbol. The nation then created a replica.

Idia Mask, tagged the Queen’s mother had been widely advertised on British Media  and in an online Auction website and the advertisement  has created an exposure of an erstwhile untraceable gem which had long been sought after by the government.

In the adverts, it had been described as a master piece of the African Arts

The adverts drew wild reactions from Nigerians across the world who requested the withdrawal of the gems from the auction and their eventual return to its source(Edo State).

The auction sales has been slated for February next year.

According to a short Press Release by the auction company,Sotheby, the consignor had requested for the withdrawal of the gem from the staple of items to be auctioned.

It reads:” “The Benin Ivory Pendant Mask and other items consigned by the descendants of Lionel Galway which Sotheby’s had announced for auction in February 2011 have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the consignors.”

Reacting to the withdrawal, the Nigerian Liberty Forum, which originally broke the news of the auction sale to the world attention,  commended the withdrawal in a statement praising the courage of the family for being so conscientious and remorseful.

“The attention of the Nigeria Liberty Forum has been drawn to the cancellation of the Benin Idia Mask that was due to take place on 17 February 2011, which according to Sotheby’s press release was at the request of the consignor”

“We view this action by Galway family as a step in the right direction and we look forward to reaching an agreement with the family on how to ensure the mask and other Benin artefacts are returned to the rightful owners , that is, the Benin people of Edo State in Nigeria”, the statement signed by Kayode Ogundamisi,  NLF convener said.

The Statement added that the family would be doing more moral justice by returning  the gem to the source, the Oba of Benin and his subjects adding: “We are also interested in the return of numerous other artefacts of unknown whereabouts which had  their sources traceable under similar circunstances”

However, there had been other reactions on several social fora following the family action commending their will to respect  the voice of Nigerian people.

The gem, ever sought after by Nigerians has always been in memory, used last year by this Tourism Magazine as a cover picture. Now it is real in physical, having been sighted on Auction sales menu

Auction Sales background: The advert, describing the artefacts as a rare creativity of world class!

On 17th February 2011, Sotheby’s will sell a rare, newly re-discovered, 16th century ivory pendant mask depicting the head of the Queen mother from the Edo peoples, Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria along with five other rare works from Benin collected at the same time. Only four other historical ivory pendant masks with related iconography of this age and quality are known – all of which are housed in major museums around the world.

All of the .ivory masks are widely recognised for the quality of their craftsmanship, for the enormous scale of Benin’s artistic achievement and for their importance in the field of African art.

Produced for the  Oba (or King) of Benin, these ivory pendant masks are testament to the Kingdom of Benin’s golden age when the kingdom flourished economically, politically and artistically.  The masks rank among the most iconic works of art to have been created in Africa. The mask to be sold at Sotheby’s in February is estimated at £3.5-4.5* million.

It had been on public view in 1947 as part of a loan exhibition at the Berkeley Galleries in London entitled ‘Ancient Benin’, and then again in  1951 in ‘Traditional Sculpture from the Colonies’ at the Arts Gallery of the Imperial Institute in London.

The mask and the five other Benin objects will be sold by the descendants of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Gallwey (in 1913 he changed his name to Galway) who was appointed deputy commissioner and vice-consul in the newly established Oil Rivers Protectorate (later the Niger Coast Protectorate) in 1891.

He remained in Nigeria until 1902 and participated in the British Government’s “Punitive Expedition” of 1897 against Benin City.

The faces of the five known pendant masks have been interpreted widely by scholars of Benin art as that of Idia, the first Queen Mother of Benin.

The mother of the Oba Esigie (c. 1504 – 1550), Idia was granted the title of  Iyoba(Queen Mother) by Esigie in recognition of her help and counsel during his military campaigns. Idia remains a celebratedfigure in Benin, known as the ‘only woman who went to war’.  The masks were created at least in part as objects of veneration.  The worn and honey-coloured surface of the offered mask attests to years of rubbing with palm oil, and surface as well as the style of carving is most similar to the example in The Seattle Art Museum.

The mask comes to auction together with: a highly important carved tusk made with a group of other similarly carved tusks for the altar of an Oba who lived in the 18th century.

The imagery presented depicts emblems of power and strength which are related to the life of the Oba himself. The iconography is specific, and can be seen repeated across many arts forms in Benin, including the well-documented bronze plaques.

The collection also includes two richly carved ivory armlets which incorporate many of the panoply of motifs used by the artists of the Igbesanmwan, the  Royal Guild of ivory carvers.

As with most ivory carvings, these were more than likely made for an Oba, as he would have had complete control over the production of works of art made from precious ivory.

Also in the collection is a rare bronze armlet, cast with Portuguese figures in an openwork motif.

The earliest appearance of the Portuguese in plaques and free-standing figures and bracelets in the 16thand 17th century was

Undoubtedly calculated by the Benin to add considerable prestige to the Oba and his courts demonstrating that his power extended beyond the confines of his own people.

Finally, the collection includes a very rare bronze sculpture of a type historically identified as tusk stands.

The twisted and hollowed form of this stand suggests it served the same function as the more familiar bronze commemorative heads, as a stand for a carved ivory tusk on an altar created to honour a former ruler.


Iria Mask; Some background:Source The will

PHOTO: THE QUEEN IDIA MASK, ONE OF THE STOLEN MASKS FROM THE BINI KINGDOM BY THE BRITISH DURING THE 1897 INVASION OF BENIN CITY.Source: Kwame Opoku

Various media, including the Art Newspaperwww.theartnewspaper.com and the Financial Timeshttp://www.ft.com/cms have reported that Sotheby’s, the auction house in London, will be auctioning a re-discovered masterpiece of Benin art, the ivory pendant of Queen-Mother Idia, on 17th February 2011 and other Benin artefacts from the Edo people. The pendant is expected to fetch £3.5-4.5 millions and possibly more.http://www.google.com

The Idia ivory pendant is one of the most beautiful pieces of art ever produced and its ownership has been subject of controversy.

This hip mask as well as all the many Benin bronzes, was looted by the British in the infamous punitive expedition of 1897 when the British invaded Benin, looted thousands of artefacts, burnt Benin City and sent the Oba Ovonramwen, the king into exile. Ever since then, the people of Benin and Nigeria have been asking for the return of at least some of the looted artefacts. The museums have remained deaf to the cries of the Benin people and often do not even bother to acknowledge receipt of such requests for restitution. The United Nations, UNESCO, several international conferences and ICOM have urged holders of the Benin bronzes to return some to Nigeria but nobody seems to pay any attention to the pleas of the world organizations.

Hitherto, many people have thought there was only one  Idia hip mask, the one in the British Museum. A few people realized that there was another one in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and   one at the Seattle Art Museum as well as one in the Linden Museum, Stuttgart. Now we have the news of a fifth mask that will be sold next year. There is finally, the recently made mask for FESTAC 77.

It will be recalled that the British Museum has arrogantly refused to return to Nigeria, even for a short period, the ivory hip mask of Queen-Mother Idia, which had been chosen as symbol for FESTAC 1977 (Second World African Festival of Arts and Culture) and thus obliged the Africans and Nigerians to produce a new version.

The possession, selling and buying of Benin artefacts raises questions as to their legality and legitimacy, in view of their obviously violent and illegitimate removal from Benin, and the accompanying arson (burning) and destruction of Benin City for which, as far as I know, no compensation has yet been paid by those responsible for the destruction.

The legality of the selling and buying of the stolen/looted artefacts has not yet been the object of any judicial investigation and adjudication. The Government of Nigeria and the people of Benin (Edo) reserve their right to challenge the legality and legitimacy of the selling and buying of the looted objects.  Incidentally, it is remarkable that many think only the laws of the Europeans are applicable to the question of legitimacy and legality of selling and buying Benin bronzes and other African artefacts. Why should we apply the laws of the British who came thousands of miles away from Europe to steal the properties of Africans?  Why apply the laws of the aggressor and ignore the laws of the injured party, especially since the place of the initial wrongdoing is Benin. Has the law of the place of the act less importance that the law of the aggressor?

Although Britain invaded Benin City in 1897, it never formally declared war on Benin. Thus whatever may have been the rights of victors in wars never applied to the case of Benin? Moreover, since 1815, it had been accepted by European States that cultural objects of enemies were to be protected in case of military conflict and left intact. There was no provision for carrying away the cultural objects of the enemy. Where this was done, it was against the established norms.

It was never allowed by the laws governing nations on the African continent that one nation could collect wholesale the cultural objects of another nation, whether in peace or at war. These cultural objects are so intimately connected with deepest religious beliefs and practices of a particular people and could not simply be transferred to another people. This would have violated taboos and prohibitions in the cultures of those looting and those in the deprived society. Respect of the culture and religion of the other, was the norm even in war hence many conquered nations kept their own religion and cultural practices.

The idea of stealing, looting and selling the cultural artefacts of others seems to have been a European invention which was brought to Africa. Indeed, the commodification of cultural objects seems to have developed with European capitalism for it was only when there was a market for the cultural object of others that stealing, looting, selling and purchase made sense.

Despite United Nations and UNESCO resolutions as well as international conference conclusions and ICOM Code of Ethics, many Westerners, continue to write and argue as if nothing had changed in the world since 1879. They consider the resolutions of the international bodies as irrelevant even though the resolutions represent the views of the majority of humankind.

With regard to the projected sale of the looted Idia mask, one may expect that the Nigerian government and people, like the Chinese will protest at the selling of their national heritage and demand its restitution.

Are the present holders of the mask aware of the whole array of legal, political and cultural questions relating to the sale and purchase of the looted bronzes? One would expect auction houses to advise potential buyers about the controversies around those artefacts and their significance. Are the successors who are now proposing to sell the mask aware of what they could do to contribute to the reconciliation between Britain and Nigeria, supported by the entire African continent, from Cape to Cairo, to reduce the resentments, much alive now as in 1897?

What do the many Benin specialists in the West say about the proposed sale of the Queen Idia mask? Or are they not concerned or involved in such issues?  Where are all the friends of Nigeria and Africa when it comes to matters of restitution of African cultural objects? Where are all those who wish to celebrate with us the 50th anniversary of African Independence?

Whatever the eventual outcome of the proposed sale of the Queen-Mother Idia mask, the controversies surrounding the nefarious punitive expedition and its aftermath are not likely to disappear since it appears there are many more of these artefacts in museums and private collections that are unknown to the general public. Even the museums refuse to give us sufficient information about “their” Benin artefacts.

History Source: Dr Kwame Opoku

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