By Sarah Bahr
The Metropolitan Museum of Art announced on Wednesday that it planned to return two brass plaques from its collection, part of the group of West African artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes, to Nigeria, making it the latest institution to pursue repatriation of the looted works.
It has also brokered the return of a third object — a brass head produced in the city of Ife around the 14th century — that had been offered to the museum for sale.
“The Met is pleased to have initiated the return of these works and is committed to transparency and the responsible collecting of cultural property,” the museum said in a statement.
The two 16th-century brass plaques, “Warrior Chief” and “Junior Court Official,” were created at the Court of Benin.
They are part of a collection of artifacts that the British army looted in an 1897 raid on Benin City, in what is now Nigeria, that are now scattered through museums and private collections around the world.
The plaques were housed in the British Museum and then the National Museum in Lagos. “Although they were never deaccessioned by the National Museum,” the Met said in a statement, “the two plaques entered the international art market at an unknown date and under unclear circumstances and were eventually acquired by a New York collector.”
In 1991, the collector gave his Benin works to the Met.
The Met, which has some 160 items from Benin City, including a renowned ivory mask, in its collection, said it initiated the return after conducting research in partnership with the British Museum over the past year. The works in the Met’s collection “were largely given to the institution in the 1970s and 1990s by individuals who acquired them on the art market,” a spokesman told The New York Times in April.
Kenneth Weine, a spokesman for the Met, said the mask was not being considered for return, though he did not provide a reason.
The Met has deaccessioned the plaques and will deliver them to the director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abba Isa Tijani, when he is able to travel to New York City, the museum said in a statement.
They will likely be displayed in the planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, which is being designed by the architect David Adjaye. The museum’s current target is to open in 2025, though the timeline has been pushed back several times.
Despite their name, many of the bronzes are actually made from ivory, brass and wood. While Europe’s museums have had discussions with Nigeria for years, American institutions have only recently begun to act on the bronzes in their collections.
“Nigeria enjoins other museums to take a cue from this,” Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture of Nigeria, said in a statement. “The art world can be a better place if every possessor of cultural artifacts considers the rights and feelings of the dispossessed.”