U.S. museums return African bronzes stolen in 19th century

Written by
Associated Press and Claretta Bellamy
Nov. 2, 2022

Institutions have benefited financially and culturally for decades from keeping African artifacts, Princeton University professor Chika Okeke-Agulu said.

A bronze sculpture of a West African king that had been in the collection of a Rhode Island museum for more than 70 years was among 31 culturally precious objects that were returned to the Nigerian government on Tuesday.

The Benin Bronzes, including a piece called the “Head of a King” or “Oba” from the Rhode Island School of Design Museum, were transferred to the Nigerian National Collections during a ceremony at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. The pieces that were stolen by the British in the late 19th century included 29 that the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents voted in June to return, and one object from the National Gallery of Art, officials said.

The RISD Museum’s piece, believed to date to the 1700s, was a gift from Lucy Truman Aldrich in 1939. It had been acquired in a 1935 sale of objects from the Benin Kingdom from the Knoedler Gallery in New York, the museum said in a statement.

The repatriation is part of a worldwide movement by cultural institutions to return artifacts that were often stolen during colonial wars. African nations and scholars have put pressure on the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, to return stolen African artifacts for years, according to Chika Okeke-Agulu, program director of African studies at Princeton University. But he said most African artifacts tend to remain in Europe. French art historians estimate that 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is believed to be in Europe. However, Okeke-Agulu said there is a push by leaders to change those numbers.  

One major factor is “pressure from African … voices that have in the past decade or so consistently kept the pressure on these institutions to give up these objects that were expropriated from Benin City,” he said. “The other aspect has to do with the changing attitudes of these institutions, sometimes internally generated, as is the case with many university museums where students are the ones often putting pressure on their institutions to change their behavior and attitude and disposition to our looted objects, especially colonially.” 

In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron said returning African artifacts would be a “top priority” for the country over the next five years. The following year, he commissioned a report focusing on restitution efforts, which commenced a repatriation movement of African artifacts throughout Europe. Germany followed suit, forming an agreement with Nigeria in June to grant Nigeria ownership of more than 1,000 artifacts in German museums. And in 2021, the Nigerian government requested the return of looted items by writing letters to British museums.

According to Okeke-Agulu, these actions have created a domino effect, prompting more nations, including the U.S., to participate in the returning of artifacts. 


A bust that was taken from Nigeria by the British military is placed on a table in the Oba of Benin palace in Nigeria on Feb. 19.Kola Sulaimon / AFP via Getty Images file

“These institutions have, for decades, benefited financially and culturally from keeping these objects through all kinds of means,” Okeke-Agulu said. He added that it’s “not enough” for institutions to simply return these objects, but that they should offer African countries full restitution.

Beyond repatriation, Okeke-Agulu said Africa is calling for countries like the U.S. and the U.K. to form collaborative relationships with Africa, including sharing knowledge of the artifacts’ origins and helping to train curators.

Abba Isa Tijani, director-general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, agrees, hoping the recent transfer of the African bronze sculpture inspires more museums to return African artifacts, opening the door for better relationships.

“We hope for great collaborations with these museums and institutions and we have already opened promising discussions with them concerning this,” he said in a statement. “The entire world is welcome to join in this new way of doing things. A way free from rancours and misgivings. A way filled with mutual respect.”