In June 2014, the art dealer Lance Entwistle paid over €500,000 ($530,000; £450,000) for a Benin Bronze leopard at a Christie’s auction in Paris. As one of Europe’s leading dealers in ‘Tribal Art’ – which usually means sculptures from Africa, the Pacific and the Americas – he has been involved in several of the most important Benin Bronze sales of recent years, worth many millions of pounds.
Prices for Benin Bronzes – artefacts looted from what is now modern-day Nigeria – were rising when Entwistle bought the leopard, which is why he was confident he’d be able to sell it on for a good profit. But almost a decade later, he still can’t shift it. “It has been for sale for years, but it hasn’t moved,” Entwistle told VICE World News.
What’s changed since 2014 are global attitudes towards objects looted during the colonial period. The Benin Bronzes, which are amongst Africa’s greatest treasures, have become emblematic of the debate around the restitution of stolen cultural property. Several Western museums – in Germany, Britain and the US – have chosen to return their Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, and those that haven’t, such as the British Museum, are under uncomfortable scrutiny. Now that many prestigious auction houses don’t want to touch these items, this new ethical climate has had huge ramifications on the legal private market.
Entwistle had hoped the leopard would be another smart investment. In his sales pitch, he describes the aquamanile – a jug in the shape of an animal – as a “rare and important bronze… cast with great artistic élan,” dated from 1600 AD or earlier. Entwistle is confident the object was looted in 1897, the year when a British military force pillaged Benin City, now part of modern-day Nigeria, and carted off thousands of brass castings and ivory carvings, collectively known as the Benin Bronzes. There are many imitation antique Bronzes on the market, but this one is authentic, Entwistle said. And yet, nobody wants to buy it.
“People’s concerns are that this is an asset that is going to diminish,” Entwistle said. “It is definitely not as easy to sell objects linked to 1897, even if their legal status has not changed.”
Tim Teuten spent almost 30 years with Christie’s, specialising in African and Oceanic art, and now works with the German auctioneers Lempertz. When it comes to the trade in Benin Bronzes, he is blunt. “I see the market as dead, frankly.” Teuten told VICE World News. “I can’t imagine anyone is going to want to sell a major Benin Bronze, and I don’t think there’s an auction house that would want to take it. Who wants the controversy? Whereas 1897 provenance once brought cachet, it now carries a stigma.”
Last year three British museums – Oxford’s Pitt Rivers, Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and London’s Horniman – asked experts to value their Benin Bronzes as part of the process of transfer of ownership to Nigeria. “We concluded they were worth a lot less than they would have been 20 years ago,” a valuer told VICE World News.
However, just because major Benin Bronzes have disappeared from famous auction houses, it doesn’t mean they are no longer being bought or sold. Entwistle told VICE World News that in March 2021 he made a private sale of a Benin Bronze plaque to a collector who has subsequently bought other Benin pieces.
“Yes, selling Benin Bronzes publicly is harder,” Adenike Cosgrove – a Nigerian expert on the African art market, who runs the website ÌMỌ̀ DÁRA, which connects dealers with collectors – told VICE World News. “But the channels in which classic African art is exchanged are changing. There are collectors in Europe who are private, who are building generational wealth. There’s a lot we don’t see.”
In May 2022, Nigel Brown, a healthcare CEO based in the US, browsed the online catalogue of an art collection being sold through a firm of New Jersey auctioneers, and was startled to see a Benin Bronze staff described as having been “collected during the British Punitive Expedition to Benin City 1897.”
It was broken in two pieces, but, nonetheless, an elaborate sculpture, one and a half metres long, surmounted by a bird, with snakes, leopards, monkeys, crocodiles and human figures entwined. “I was scratching my head that in this day and age an auction house would be selling this,” Brown told VICE World News.
The piece is an exact match of a broken staff that Augustus Pitt Rivers, founder of the Pitt Rivers Museum, listed in his collection in 1900. Nigel bought it for close to $20,000, which, he said was “the most difficult purchase I’ve ever made, on moral and ethical reasons.”
Brown is now considering whether to return the object to Nigeria, or use it for educational purposes in the US. “One thing’s for sure, this is not going to my daughter’s inheritance,” he added. “I’ve written the money off.”
It’s hard to know exactly how many Benin Bronzes remain on the private market. Western museums bought or were given the vast majority of them during the 20th century. The British Museum alone is home to more than 900 of them.
In 2022, a group of experts, known as Digital Benin, listed 5,246 Bronzes in 131 museums across the world. But the organisation does not account for those in private collections. “There are so many fakes and some of them are very good, it’s not practical for us, and we would be providing owners with a free service, which is not our job to do,” Felicity Bodenstein, investigator at Digital Benin, told VICE World News. “I see every year at least three to four pieces come on to the market. I don’t know how to extrapolate an estimate of what is still in private hands. I do think museums have absorbed the lion’s share; that doesn’t mean there aren’t a couple of hundred good pieces still out there.”
I know of at least 20 Benin Bronzes that were looted in 1897 which are in private collections. The owners of these include a grandchild of a British officer who played a prominent part in the looting. Some of the privately held objects are masterpieces, such as the Ingersoll Flute Man, which caused a sensation in 1974 when it was sold to a mystery buyer at Sotheby’s in London for £185,000. It was the first time, The Times reported, “the art of primitive people, in any form, has passed £100,000.” The Flute Man has not been seen in public since. Another important missing Bronze is the Ohly Head, a piece in immaculate condition, perhaps from the 16th century, believed to depict the head of a king, or Oba. Entwistle brokered its sale in 2016, from descendants of the collector William Ohly to another reclusive buyer, who paid £10 million.
And then there is the Galway Mask, one of five legendary ivory masks supposedly taken by the British from a chest in the Oba’s bedroom as they ransacked the palace. This was kept by the family of Henry Galway, a British official on the Niger coast, for more than 100 years. It was last seen in Britain in 1951, at a London exhibition of ‘Traditional Art from the Colonies’. In 2010, Galway’s family put the mask and five other Benin artefacts up for sale at Sotheby’s, with an estimated price of between £3.5-4.5 million. But the family withdrew the objects at the last moment and discreetly sold the mask in 2015 to Sheikh Hamad Bin Abdullah Al Thani of Qatar, owner of the Al Thani Collection. In 2021, the British authorities granted the Al Thani Collection a temporary export licence, and the mask was displayed in Paris that year. A spokesman for the collection said it was “open to exploring cultural partnerships, exchange exhibitions, and collaborative ways in which this object can be displayed in Nigeria.”
There are even three in Britain’s Royal Collection, which enjoy the curious status of being held in trust by King Charles III “for his successors and the nation” but are not owned by him as an individual, according to the Collection’s website.
Dealers say that the controversy around the Benin Bronzes, as well as other
looted African artefacts – such as Ghana’s Asante gold and the treasures of Maqdala, both taken by the British military in the 19th century, or the Abomey treasures taken by the French – has had little impact on the “tribal art” market as a whole. Artkhade, a database which compiles auction sales, says in its latest report that 2021 was “the best year ever for the tribal art market,”, in which sales of African objects contributed more than half the total of $127.5 million.
Adenike Cosgrove, the Nigerian expert, is not so sure. “I see fear creeping over the wider market of tribal art,” she said, citing Western collectors who find new debates around race and colonialism leaving them feeling increasingly worried about whether they should be involved in this market. “We’re building these museums and just hoping the objects turn up,” Cosgrove added. “African collectors still represent only a tiny proportion of the collector base of classic African art. I go to major exhibitions and I’m often the only black person there.”
So could this be an opportunity for African collectors to step in? Across the continent, there is much talk of how governments and wealthy individuals are building new museums. But many believe there is still a long way to go.
“So many people still love the material,” Teuten, the former Christie’s employee, said. “If there isn’t an obvious history that taints objects, people love to own this stuff.”