The Metropolitan Museum of Art David H. Koch Plaza © The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Met and NCMM also signed a memorandum of understanding formalizing their shared commitment to future exchanges of expertise and art.
The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) today joined together to mark the transfer of three works of art to the Nigerian National Collections: two 16th-century brass plaques created at the Court of Benin, and a brass head produced in Ife around the 14th century. The event was attended by Professor Abba Isa Tijani, Director General of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, and Max Hollein, The Met’s Marina Kellen French Director.
The two institutions also signed a memorandum of understanding formalizing a shared commitment to future exchanges of expertise and art, including loans of Benin material from The Met for the opening of the museum planned for Benin City and other branches of Nigeria’s national museums, and loans from Nigeria to The Met for the reopening of the Michael C. Rockefeller Wing in 2024.
Met Director Max Hollein stated: “It is an honor to welcome Director General Abba Isa Tijani to the Museum today. The Met is pleased to have initiated the return of these works and is committed to transparency and the responsible collecting of cultural property. Today’s signing of the memorandum of understanding is a meaningful way to show our commitment to The Met’s partnership with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments. We look forward to collaborating together on loans of art and exchanges of ideas and scholarship.”
The Met initiated the transfers of these works following collaborative research, conducted over the past year in partnership with the NCMM and other colleagues, that led to the joint determination that the works should be transferred to Nigeria.
The Minister of Information and Culture of Nigeria, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, stated: “We welcome the rapprochement developing in the museum world, and appreciate the sense of justice displayed by The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Nigeria enjoins other museums to take a cue from this. The art world can be a better place if every possessor of cultural artifacts considers the rights and feelings of the dispossessed.”
The Director General of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments Professor Abba Isa Tijani said: “We sincerely appreciate the transparency exhibited by The Metropolitan Museum of Art regarding issues leading to the return of these objects. The NCMM understands that there are great opportunities for collaborations of all sorts, including traveling exhibitions with many of these exquisite objects. The NCMM shall jointly with as many willing partners as possible pursue this under prospective agreements. The NCMM looks forward to a future of joint activities with The Met. We shall be working together along with other colleagues on the Digital Benin project and several other worthy initiatives to be discussed.”
About the Works
The two 16th-century plaques, Warrior Chief and Junior Court Official, produced at the Court of Benin, were among those works removed from the Royal Palace in 1897 during the British military occupation of Benin. Following that military campaign, they entered the collection of the British Museum, London, from 1898 to 1950. In 1950–51, the British Museum transferred these two plaques (and 24 others) to the National Museum in Lagos. Although they were never deaccessioned by the National Museum, the two plaques entered the international art market at an unknown date and under unclear circumstances and were eventually acquired by a New York collector. In 1991, that individual gave his collection of Benin works to The Metropolitan Museum of Art, where the works were researched, published in print and online, and exhibited internationally.
Following collaborative research over the past year conducted by The Met and the British Museum, The Met reached out to the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments to seek clarity on the status of these works, and over the course of exchanges with staff there, it was decided that the works should be returned to Nigeria. The plaques were deaccessioned by The Met in June 2021.
The Met has additionally brokered the return of a third work to the Nigerian National Collection that it had been offered for sale: A 14th-century bronze Ife head from the Wunmonije Compound in Nigeria. The seller offering the Ife head for purchase had been under the misapprehension that legal title to the work had been granted by the NCMM. Further inquiry by The Met determined that this was not the case and, accordingly, it has arranged with the seller and their agent for the Ife head to return to its legitimate home institution.
As part of its ongoing commitment to the responsible acquisition and care of archaeological objects, The Met has posted images and known provenance on its website for all of the works of art in its collection, including those from the Kingdom of Benin, along with a number of essays to illuminate their history. The Museum is also participating in the Digital Benin project, an international platform designed to consolidate and continue to expand documentation concerning the histories of works from Benin.