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Queen Idia Mask's sale sets Sotheby's against art world

Auction house sale and the looting by the colonial military

Published on 7 January 2011

Author(s): Compass Newspaper/Chuka Nnabuife

Type:  News

The proposed February 17 auction generated global furore among experts in the arts, humanities and African Studies

On Boxing Day the British auction house, Sotheby’s canceled its proposed sale of the looted Benin royal court artifact, Queen Idia Mask, which it proposed to slot for hammer sale at the prize tag of £4.5m on February 17.

The planned auction of the historic artefact, a waist piece worn by the Oba of Benin during vital customary rites, was initiated by a deal between Sotheby’s and the descendants of the the late Lt-Col Sir Henry Lionel Galway, a British West Africa Protectorate military officer who took part in the 1897 looting of the royal palace of Benin Kingdom during which the Britons forcefully evicted the then king of Benin Kingdom, Oba Ovonramwen who later died in exile.

During the 19th century operation, tagged ‘Benin Expedition’ in Western versions of African history texts but ‘Benin Massacre’ by African reporters of the same history, Queen Idia Mask and hundreds of other such works were carted away to the western world by the plundering British soldiers. And descendants of those soldiers who embarked in the operation, like Galaway’s, as well as organisations like the British Museum, have ever since lived well on the proceeds the artifacts still bring to their estates.

Against this background, the proposed February 17 auction generated global furore among experts in the arts, humanities and African Studies as well as culture activists since the influential art house, Sotheby’s announced it in October 2010.

Most of the largely Internet-based buzz against the auction were from cultural authorities who condemned the Galway estate’s rationale for selling the carved ivory masterpiece generally known as a product of plunder-under-gunpoint by their fore father (among other culprits). They faulted the Galways and Sotheby’s for setting out on such deal when they, and the global art world are aware that the piece is one of the over 300 pieces involved in the nerve-raking return-of-artefact negotiation which the Benin Kingdom and the government of United Kingdom have been locked in since the 1990s. Issues around the return of such artefacts have also been subject of several UNESCO and International Convention on Museums’ policies positions and even the laws of such countries as United Kingdom, Italy, Ethiopia, China and Austria.

Based on these depth of policy positions about such artefacts the experts deemed Sotheby’s and the Galway’s estate’s current deal an affront. The voices of condemnation of the deal rose to the pitch of hinting racism and deliberate disregard of international conventions. The trailed to deep intellectual issues and blossomed into sharp internet exchanges between pro-African writers and pro-western ones with both ends arguing pro or against the matter in penetrating lines.

Writing in his whistle-blowing article They are Selling Queen-mother Idia Mask and We Are All Quiet blogged, December 23, 2010 on, the African American scholar and blogger, Dr. Kwame Opoku stated: “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.

ivory pendant of Queen-Mother Idia 3.jpg

“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.”

Online, a group named Nigeria Liberty Forum (NLF) fumed: “They should seek good counsel and refrain from selling the mask,”

Edo state government official, Orobosa Omo-Ojo, granted a media briefing in which in which he urged Sotheby’s to withdraw the intention to sell the piece. Saying: “Anything that makes them ignore this, the Edo state government will use this as a starting point to protect our intellectual properties.”

But the Independent Newspaper of London’s Art Correspondent, Rob Sharp, while hinting that the heat about the piece was over dramatised as, according to him, the number of such looted artefacts in UK are lesser than pro-return activist say they are. “The mask, (is) one of the last great masterpieces of Benin sculpture remaining in private hands,” he wrote in his story, Sotheby’s Cancels Sale of ‘Looted’ Benin Mask: Online Protests Halt Auction of ‘Plundered’ 16th-century Artefact, published, December 29, 2010. He hinted that there was no plunder of the Benin palace in 1897. Rather, “the British confiscated many of the treasures they found, auctioning them off to finance the expedition. Many of the artefacts ended up in the British Museum, which currently holds another of the same group of masks, although some remained in private hands....” And added that Sotheby’s would not be the first art house to put the artifact up on public view. “The mask had previously been on public view in 1947 as part of an exhibition at London’s Berkeley Galleries. It was shown in 1951 in another show at the Arts Gallery of the Imperial Institute in London.”

The debate across continents on the proposed auction was intense, awaking the almost settling reparation of stolen artifacts’ debate of the 1990s through which has seen such European countries as Italy and France return some pieces which their colonial forces looted in Africa to their country’s of origin. Italy returned the obelisks looted by Benito Mussolini’s forces to Ethiopia while France, three years ago returned some plundered statuettes to Egypt.

Hence when, on December 26, 2010 Sotheby’s announced a cancellation of the sale of the Benin mask, the art world took a deep sigh of relief. “The Benin ivory 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,” a Sotheby’s spokesman said.

Director of African and Oceanic Art at Sotheby’s, Jean Fritts hinted that his organisation’s interest in the masterpiece was because collectors love it. “It has an amazing untouched surface which collectors love. Its honey colour attests to years of rubbing with palm oil.”

Though celebrating the news critics of the deal also noted that it has serendipitously opened the window for another phase of the repatriation of stole artefacts campaign.

Reacting to the suspension the over 3000 contributors to the Connoisseurs of Contemporary African Art, the online pro-African art campaign site in, on Tweeter cheered the development as victory.

Commenting therein, Kayode Ogundamisi, the petition organiser of NLF stated: “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 the 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.

“We can only imagine that this piece of good news is as a result of the collective effort of Nigerians and Africans as a whole, home and abroad. We note in particular the efforts of Facebook campaigns as well as numerous blogs and some mainstream media outlets as well as a number of legal practitioners in the UK.

“This is not to say victory has been achieved as the main objective is the return of the artefacts to the Oba of Benin and his subjects. We are also interested in the return of numerous artefacts of unknown whereabouts.”

One Sinting Sediba on December 27, 2010 noted that the campaign against Idia Mask auction shows that the Internet networking can be a good frontier for the reparation quest which hitherto has been under the control of politicians whose, lack of sufficient knowledge of the issues involved and lackadaisical attitude have largely stalled the steam. It “just goes to show what we can all do if only we band together. It is important not to loose sight of the wider picture. These artifacts all need to be brought back home. If we make it impossibly difficult for anymore to be sold. It will be more likely that those that currently hold them will relent.

“And oh by the way who needs our “sleeping” politicians when we can do these things ourselves?” Sediba quipped.

A contributor, Dan on December adds: “...This shows that if we put aside ethnicity, nationality and class and unite; we shall overcome the challenges face us. This progress should serve as an incentive for us to work even harder. “If we try, we can, because we are the miracle”. AFRICA UNITE.”

But one Jimmy posted a source of worry on December 28, 2010: “The rumor in the antique world is that the family has arranged a private sale so I’m not quite sure how this advances the cause of getting these artifacts returned to Nigeria.”

And another, going by the name Afrikan X, who flagged himself as “Speaking quietly only to those who have ears”commented thus: “It is so interesting to listen to everyone trying to come up with a way to negotiate with thieves. We are actually discussing the sale of stolen property as if it is a legal transaction. We should be pushing the UN and AU on the real issues of law regarding theft. If it worked with Sotheby’s it can work with UN.

“The issue is not about the mask, the issue should be about the theft. Once we move away from the words “artifact” and “estimated value” we can address the real issue.

The Mask is not an “artifact” it is a sacred African symbol like the “Crown Jewels” and it has no value in monetary terms.

“If we focus on the moral high ground we will get it all back, even our people that we have also somehow accepted belong to the thieves.

“Sotheby’s also does very private sales. These people have been selling our “artifacts” quietly among themselves for centuries; the appearance of this mask on the public auction only suggests financial problems in the private collectors group. But I can assure you that after this, all our treasures will go underground and that will be that until someone gets desperate or careless again.

“The moral issues of human trafficking and theft of national treasures are the real issues that we seem to think have a statute of limitation.

“Let’s try to get our house in order instead of chasing crumbs. Crumbs always come with the whole pie.”

Hence experts say the end is yet to be heard on the issues around the Queen Idia Mask.

According to Benin folktale, Queen Idia, wife of Oba (king) Ozolua was the mother of Esigie, the Oba of Benin who ruled from 1504 to 1550. She played a very significant role in the rise and reign of her son. She was a strong warrior who fought relentlessly before and during her son’s reign as the Oba. Stories around Idia are mythical, all referring to her prowess in spirituality and warfare. Hence Benin court artists deified her in the waist pendants that the successors to the Benin Kingdom throne were in ceremonies.

Benin historians state that when Oba Ozolua died, he left behind two powerful sons to dispute over who would become Oba. His son Esigie controlled Benin City while another son, Arhuaran, was based in the equally important city of Udo about 30km away. Idia mobilised an army around Esigie, which successfully defeated Arhuaran, and Oba Esigie became the 16th king.

Subsequently, the neighboring Igala peoples sent warriors across the Benue River to wrest control of Benin’s northern territories. Esigie conquered the Igala, reestablishing the unity and military strength of the kingdom. His mother Idia received much of the credit for these victories as her political counsel, together with her magical powers and medicinal knowledge, were viewed as critical elements of Esigie’s success on the battlefield. Idia became the first Iyoba (Queen Mother) of Benin when Esigie conferred upon her the title and built for her the Eguae-Iyoba (Palace of the Queen Mother). It is reported the Oba Esegie established the Queen Mother title first bestowed on her and instituted the tradition of casting and carving Idia heads in bronze and ivory by court artists. The artefacts are placed on altars while pendants made of the image are worn during vital customary rites for their potent spiritual efficacy. This explains the availability of many versions of the Queen Idia Masks in various notable art collections around the the world.

See also on this website Nigeria: Between the Country's Artefacts And Western Iconoclasts

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