US Returns Benin Bronzes and Other Artifacts Stolen by British Colonial Forces to Nigeria

The United States has returned famous Benin Bronze collections to Nigeria. The bronze collections which include the head of a Nigerian King "Oba" and over 30 historically precious artifacts had been in the Rhode Island School of Museum (RISD) for over 70 years.

The event to return the Bronzes took place on Tuesday at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. This came after the Smithsonian Board of Regents voted in June to return some objects from the National Gallery of Art back to Nigeria.

The United States (US) Returns Benin Bronzes and Other Artifacts Stolen by British Colonial Forces to Nigeria
Credit: Twitter @SmithsonianSec

The most famous of the returned items is the Head of an Oba, "The Head of a King" piece stolen from the Royal Palace of Oba Ovonranwmen in 1897 by the British, according to the Museum. "The RISD Museum has worked with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments to repatriate this sculpture to the people of Nigeria where it belongs," RISD Museum Interim Director Sarah Ganz Blythe said in a statement.

In 1897, the British troop invaded the famous Benin Kingdom with 1200 armed men, killed thousands, and looted over 700 Artefacts from the Kingdom to England, an attack that led to the end of the Great Benin Kingdom that existed since the 15th Century.

The "Head of the King" is believed to date back to the 1700s. It was the head of a Benin King in current Edo State, Nigeria. The head sculpture was placed in the loyal palace of the ruling king, Ovonranwmen, as an ancestral honor rite but was stolen during the British colonial conquest.

The artifact was given to the RISD Museum by Lucy Truman Aldrich in 1939, according to a report by Al Jazeera. The donor acquired the item in 1935 during the sale of objects from the Benin Kingdom from the Knoedler Gallery in New York, the Museum said. Reports also have it that the item had once been in a French collections.

Lonnie G. Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture tweeted, "Today we address a historic injustice by returning the Benin Bronzes, magnificent examples of Benin's culture and history."

"Through this repatriation, we acknowledge a legacy of cultural theft and do our part to return African culture to Africans".

Lonnie added that the institution is ready to continue in the legacy of fighting against cultural injustice by returning stolen valuables to their original owners.

The repatriation offices at both our NMNH and SmithsonianNMA have long been leaders in efforts to return cultural heritage to rightful owners. With our Smithsonian ethical returns policy, we continue this important work, taking the wishes of origin communities into account.

The Director General of Nigeria's National Museums and Monuments, Abba Isa Tijani, in response, stated that she believed the return of the items will inspire other museums around the world to return stolen items and artifacts from Nigeria and other Africa as a whole.

"We hope for great collaborations with these museums and institutions and we have already opened promising discussions with them concerning this. The entire world is welcome to join in this new way of doing things" she said.


Many organizations around the world had petitioned countries to repatriate stolen artifacts back to Nigeria and other African countries. In August, a London Museum returned about 72 items including part of the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Also in August, Germany returned about 512 items. However, there are still thousands of Benin Bronzes and other artifacts yet to be returned to Nigeria.

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