New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art on Monday officially returned three works of art to Nigeria that were looted in the 19th century, as museums make increasing efforts to repatriate some foreign treasures.
The two 16th-century brass plaques and a 14th-century brass head from the Kingdom of Benin — part of modern-day Nigeria — were taken from the Nigerian Royal Palace during British military occupation in 1897 and moved to the British Museum in London until 1950 when the UK repatriated them.
After their return to the National Museum in Lagos, they re-entered the art market and ended up in the hands of a private investor who donated them to the Met in 1991, where they were exhibited for years.
On Monday, their transfer to the Nigerian National Collections — already announced in June — was confirmed at a signing in New York by Met director Max Hollein and Abba Isa Tijani, director-general of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria.
Tijani, quoted in the release, congratulated the Met “for the transparency it has shown” while Nigeria’s minister of information and culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, called on “other museums to take a cue from this” decision.
“The art world can be a better place if every possessor of cultural artifacts considers the rights and feelings of the dispossessed,” Mohammed said.
“The Met is pleased to have initiated the return of these works and is committed to transparency and the responsible collecting of cultural property,” Hollein said.
The museum also signed an agreement with the African country to formalize their “shared commitment to future exchanges of expertise and art,” according to the press release.
The Met said it would “lend works from Benin” to Nigerian museums and, in return, Abuja would provide “loans” to the Met with a view to the creation of a new museum wing by 2024.
The restitution of stolen works of art in Africa by colonial armies has affected institutions across the Western world.
Earlier this month, Paris handed back 26 treasures that were looted from Benin during colonial times, fulfilling a promise made by President Emmanuel Macron to restore a lost part of Africa’s heritage.
German museums have agreed to work with Nigerian authorities on a plan to repatriate looted Benin treasures, while London’s Horniman Museum said in April that it would consider the repatriation of artifacts obtained by “colonial violence” to Nigeria.
The British Museum, which has faced increasing criticism for its refusal to return artifacts to Nigeria and Egypt among other places, helped to return more than 150 looted ancient treasures to institutions in Iraq and Afghanistan in 2019.