Oxford and Cambridge Universities may return 213 stolen artefacts from Benin

213 items, including many bronzes and some ivory and wood sculptures, were removed from Benin City by British troops in February 1897 in response to a bitter trade dispute the previous month.

The universities of Oxford and Cambridge can return more than 200 artifacts looted by British colonial troops in 1897 after Nigeria demanded the repatriation of cultural property that year.

During the attack, the British troops burned down the city’s palace and expelled the Beninese Oba, or king.

Several thousand copper wares and other artefacts, collectively known as the “Benin bronzes”, were removed by the British and subsequently sold in London to recoup the costs of the military mission.

Close

Copper ring bracelet stolen from Benin City by British colonial troops in 1897, currently in the collection of the Cambridge Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, but may be returned to Nigeria. (University of Cambridge/Pennsylvania)

Considered to be of exceptional artistic quality and value, these works were actively sought after by museums and collectors of the period, with the result that they were dispersed among many museums in Europe and the United States, as well as in the UK.

Restitution claims date back to the mid-twentieth century and have intensified in recent years.

On January 7 this year, Oxford and Cambridge received official requests from the National Commission on Museums and Monuments of Nigeria (NCMM) to return the items.

Cambridge has identified 116 items known or believed to have been looted that are in the collections of the university’s Museum of Archeology and Anthropology (MAA).

Oxford’s claim concerns 97 items from the collections of the Pitt Rivers Museum and the Ashmole Museum.

Both universities support requests for the return of artifacts, which will be reviewed by the Charity Commission before their return is allowed.

Close

The Cambridge professor said there is growing awareness that illegally acquired artifacts should be returned to their countries of origin. (University of Cambridge/Pennsylvania)

The University of Cambridge said its decision is in line with similar commitments recently made by other museums in the US and Europe and reflects an industry-wide move away from collaborating collections regardless of how those artifacts were collected.

Nigeria’s National Commission on Museums and Monuments said it welcomes proposals for loan arrangements that allow artifacts to remain on display with appropriate certification at the Cambridge Museum of Archeology and Anthropology.

Professor Nicholas Thomas, director of the Cambridge Museum of Archeology and Anthropology, said: “There is a growing awareness in the international museum sector that illicitly acquired artifacts must be returned to their countries of origin.

“The Smithsonian Institution and major European museums have announced a decision to return collections to a number of countries.”

Oxford University said it expects the claim to return the artifacts will be considered by the fall.

The University of Oxford said in a statement that the Pitt Rivers Museum has received a demand from Nigeria for the return of “97 items from the collections of the Pitt Rivers and Ashmole Museum which were removed from Benin City by the British armed forces in 1897.”

“The claim is currently being processed by the university in accordance with its procedures for claims for the return of cultural property,” the statement said.

“On June 20, 2022, the Council of the University of Oxford considered and upheld the claim for the return of 97 objects to Nigeria.

“The university is currently taking the matter to the Charity Commission recommending that ownership of the facilities be transferred to the NCMM.

“The Charity Commission is expected to review the claim by fall 2022.”

The Nigerian government is building the Edo Museum of West African Art and a storage and training center for returned artifacts, which is currently being built next to the existing Benin City Museum.