9 April 2018

Exhibition: Looted Art? The Benin Bronzes

Exhibition Photograph: Michaela Hille

Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG), Germany                          
February 16th 2018
With three bronzes from Benin, the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe Hamburg (MKG) is opening another chapter of its exhibition series Looted Art? Provenance Research on the Collections of the MKG, an integral part of the visitor’s tour of the museum. MKG has researched the origin story of these three Benin bronzes and also examined the role played by the museum’s founding director, Justus Brinckmann  in trading in such objects. The research results will be published. The bronzes are not considered works of art according to the European understanding of the term. In the culture of their home country, the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria, the objects function to help lend people an identity. This circumstance demands that they be presented in an appropriate setting, which the MKG is not able to do in the context of its collections. After their exhibition at MKG, the bronzes will therefore be passed on to the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg. This museum provides with its African collection and its objects from the Benin culture a fitting context for a respectful treatment of these works.

Today there is no question anymore that these bronzes constitute looted art. In early 1897, a British delegation set out for Benin City to demand compliance with a trade agreement. A warning that this was an unfavorable time for a visit due to the Benin cultural rites being celebrated during that season fell on deaf ears. The delegation became embroiled in a skirmish and only a few members survived. In response, the British government launched a “punitive expedition.” The troops took Benin City in February 1897. In the royal palace, they seized bronze reliefs, shrines with bronze objects, and ivory, trading the items locally or bringing them back to London. Justus Brinckmann was the first German museum director to obtain bronzes from Benin and encouraged other museums to follow suit, sparking a brisk trade in these objects via Hamburg. In the port city with its trading companies based in Africa, Brinckmann enjoyed a prime location and acted as an intermediary. Of some 50 bronzes that passed through his hands, only three pieces remained at MKG. The largest contingent became part of the collection of the Museum für Völkerkunde Hamburg, and other objects were resold. With the proceeds from these sales, Brinckmann funded the acquisition by MKG of the Relief Panel with Three Dignitaries (1575–1600) and the Relief Panel with a Battle Scene (1600–1625). Museum benefactor Theodor Heye financed the purchase of the Head of an Oba (1600–1625).

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