An analysis of 96 artifacts taken from the Kingdom of Benin by Swiss museums revealed that at least half of them were taken by British soldiers during the 19th century.
A research report by the Swiss Benin Initiative was released this week. It found that 21 Benin items in eight Swiss museums had been looted on the basis of written records or evidence such as burn marks, which “provide a direct connection to the fateful events that took place in 1897.”
Researchers discovered “strong evidence” that 32 objects were looted. Although there was no written evidence linking them with 1897, they were still considered royal or court artworks created for the palace. The report’s authors stated that “we may assume with great certainty that they were violently taken in 1897, when the palace was occupied by the British troops.”
A brass hip pendant mask with a brass rim at the Rietberg museum bears an inventory number for William D. Webster. According to the most recent research of the museum, the British colonial administration assigned the sale of the Benin artifacts to a London art dealer.
According to the SBI report, private collectors played an important role in the entry of objects into museums’ collections.
With funding support from The Federal Office of Culture, the eight Swiss museums launched the SBI on their own initiative in June 2020. It was established to determine if any of the Benin objects that were publicly owned were linked to the 1897 events in which British imperial troops stole artifacts from Nigeria. This was in retaliation to the deaths of James Philips, an unarmed British explorer, and others who were on their mission to Benin.
A group of looted artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes is responsible for thousands of items taken from Benin’s kingdom. Although their exact number is not known, it is believed that they exceed 3,000.
A press release states that the SBI research project was designed to shed light on the contexts and how Switzerland got involved in trade with looted Benin City art.
The SBI discovered that the Swiss museums had expressed an openness to the possibility of a transfer of ownership or repatriation of 53 looted or likely looted artifacts. Although few institutions have officially repatriated the Benin Bronzes of their victims, Nigerian officials have encouraged others to do so.
The Benin Bronzes, currently kept in Swiss museums, would be sent to Nigeria to be displayed in a museum being constructed in Benin City. The Edo Museum of West African Art is set to open in 2025 and will house the largest collection of Benin Bronzes.