“It’s shocking to hear that the countries and museums that have been telling us that the Benin Bronzes would not be secure in Nigeria, have thefts happening there,” the director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Abba Isa Tijani, told Sky News.
On August 16, the British Museum announced that a former employee was responsible for the small pieces of “gold jewelry and gems of semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century” that had disappeared in increments from its collection. The press release did not name the fired staff member, but two UK media outlets identified them as veteran Greek antiquities curator Peter Higgs.
The institution has come under intense scrutiny after reports that the stolen items total “more than 1,500”, and were listed on the e-commerce website eBay for as little as $51. Additionally, it was revealed that senior officials were emailed detailed warnings about the thefts in 2021.
The Benin Bronzes are brass and bronze artifacts, some dating to the 16th century, that were removed from the West African kingdom of Benin (present-day Nigeria) after British forces invaded in 1897. The British Museum has a particularly large collection of “elaborately decorated cast plaques, commemorative heads, animal and human figures, items of royal regalia, and personal ornaments”, with over 900 objects and more than 100 on rotating display in its galleries.
Tijani stressed that the Benin Bronzes were illegally taken from Benin and deposited in the London museum. “It is irrespective whether they are safe there…The issue is that these are stolen artifacts, and they should be returned to Nigeria to the communities that they belong to.”
While the British Museum’s website says it has “positive relationships with the royal palace in Benin City and with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM)”, it acknowledges that the museum received a written request for their return from Nigeria’s Federal Ministry of Information and Culture in October 2021.
In the interview with Sky News, Tijani also said Hannatu Musawa, Nigeria’s newly appointed minister of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, planned to directly request the immediate repatriation of the contested artifacts.
Tijani’s comments follow recent comments from Greek culture minister Lina Mendoni about the security of another contested group of artifacts, the Parthenon Marbles. “When such incidents occur, there is obviously a question of safety and integrity [around] all of the museum’s exhibits,” she told the Greek newspaper To Vima .