Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Dear Lieutenant-Colonel Sir Henry Galleway & Sotheby's, Selling Stolen Goods is A Crime!

fisttap Naija Blog & Bombastic Elements

A 16th-century ivory pendant mask from the ancient city of Benin is to be put up for sale at Sotheby’s London. On 17 February 2011, the mask is to be auctioned for an estimated £3.5m-£4.5m (US $5.4m-$6.9m). The mask is said to have been belonged to the monarchy of Benin and was worn by the Queen Mother (Iyoba (Female) Oba  (Male)) as ceremonial headgear. Apparently there are four other masks from this era which are held in museums outside of Nigeria because well, they're world history and while this is 100% true, it is sometimes used as code speak for Mother Empire of the West can look after them better than not-yet-civilized, corrupt Nigerians. 

According to the advert for the sale:

The mask and the five other Benin objects will be sold by the descendants of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Gallwey (in 1913 he changed his name to Galway) who was appointed deputy commissioner and vice-consul in the newly established Oil Rivers Protectorate (later the Niger Coast Protectorate) in 1891. He remained in Nigeria until 1902 and participated in the British Government’s “Punitive Expedition” of 1897 against Benin City. The faces of the five known pendant masks have been interpreted widely by scholars of Benin art as that of Idia, the first Queen Mother of Benin.

That the objects are described as belonging to a 'collection' are not considered stolen goods is disturbing, in the least and Jeremy Weate at Naija blog has picked up on the 'polite violence of the language.' Truth! The colonial exploit is described as some clean and legitimate process, absent of the violence that characterised the takeover of Benin which was it what the Punitive Expedition really was. This clever dressing up of things is reflective of a deeper inability within everyday citizen and media discourse that Britain has with accepting the truth of imperialism, it is not some glorious tale of journeys to 'exotic' lands and world domination, it is a long history of murder, pillage and plunder!!! I live very near to one of London's well-known museums named after an 'anthropologist' who had a 'personal collection' of stuff from Africa and south Asia that fills up two massive rooms equivalent to the size of two small halls. It's interesting that in it's brochures the museum the descriptions smoothly glide over how this vast collection was stolen...ahem, I mean acquired. After all the man had the distinguished occupation of being an anthropologist and explorer so it's perfectly natural for him to have had large 'personal collections' from the 'indigenous tribes' of Africa and south Asia.

But back to this matter of stolen property; the Galleway family are following precedent in setting their asking price at a few million quid because in 2007, an Oba bronze head stolen by another collector was sold for $4.7 million. Clearly, selling stolen goods is a very profitable business, but only when an auction house does it and when it belongs to a colonizer...ahem, I mean explorer. But fear not help/objection is on the way, the Financial Times has (sort of, impartially ...ahem) reported about it, Sahara Reporters in Nigeria are on the case and have a petition  going and some Nigerian bloggers are upset about it too. Apart from Naija blog mentioned above, Bunmi's take on the subject of returning or not returning stuff is that, while he appreciates that returning artefacts may not always be a good thing, he writes:
...I didn't hear the part where the Galleways said proceeds from the sale are going back to help develop Benin and raise the standard of living to the point where their museums and private collectors will be able to lovingly guard and care for million-pound artifacts and, perhaps, build a few art preservation and restoration schools as well.


Now hopefully the Nigerian government will hear about this and care enough to make some noise along with the British government who should do the right thing and say something on this matter, maybe even ask The Met to have a word because if the theft of Jewish Polish paintings by Nazis is grounds for arrest* then surely a certain family has a case to answer.

*the the site where I found this story is quite content to advertise the 'sale' of the Oba mask...oh the irony.


Anonymous said...

I completely agree with you. I was shocked to see things in the British Museum in London and Kunst Historisch Museum in Vienna which should have been on site in their original locations. When I pointed this out to local citizens their responses shocked me.

In London, I was told that more people visit London than the original location. That is not an argument. And I was asked, what about all the British school children who go to the museums? That would be a laughable argument if it wasn't such sad and sorry logic in defense of looting and thievery.

I replied that I had visited the sites the objects were stolen from, that there were plenty of tourists there but there was little left. What about the people to whom it all belonged?

It is shocking... I agree. Label these objects as stolen and let them be returned!

From a U.S. citizen

Brohammas said...

I feel the same way about Montezuma's headress that is in a museum in Berlin. I want to see it badly, but not in Germany.

KonWomyn said...


Thanks for both of your responses, I hope you had a good holiday. I've heard Sotheby's has decided to stop the sale of the mask fr now - the potential embarrassment if this story got big must have scared them off. I'll be posting the story tomorrow, check my blog if you can.

Co-sign 100 with both of you, there are so many valuable artefacts of people's histories that are missing that must be returned & to call them 'world history' is perhaps legitimating their unlawful appropriation. US citizen is quite right to point out that the people to whom these things belong also want to see these things. Not every Nigerian can get on a plane to England to see a Benin exhibition. And to see your missing history in another part of the world hurts. Especially when the history you've been taught in schools has excluded you from its books.

I'm all for the repatriation of all stolen goods to their native spaces or some mutual agreement for keeping them. That repatriation can't just be some things like WW2 Jewish art but stolen African art is ok to sell.