Ownership of the Benin Bronzes that were stolen by British soldiers in 1897 from Benin City, which is modern-day Nigeria, is still surrounded by controversy, reports the New York Times.
Last summer, in a landmark agreement, the German government along with The Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art announced they were returning thousands of precious sculptures, plaques, and ornaments. Additionally, the Nigerian governed had commissioned the Ghanaian architect David Adjaye to design the Edo Museum of West African Art to house the bronzes.
During his last days in office, President Muhammadu Buhari of Nigeria announced that he was transferring ownership of the precious artifacts to Ewuare II, the current oba—ceremonial king—of Benin, which has caused much confusion regarding the status of the bronzes and the proposed museum.
Buhari said that any repatriated Bronzes must be "handed over to the Oba," who is "responsible for the management of all places" where they will be stored. Additionally, no Benin Bronze can be relocated without the Oba's written consent, and “he must inspect and authenticate each one upon its subsequent return.” In other words, Ewuare has complete power.
Officials representing the Nigerian government's National Commission for Museums and Monuments expressed their surprise at Buhari’s decision after they negotiated the return of the bronzes from several countries.
"We were blindsided… this is not practical nor compatible with existing Nigerian law [and] it was written by someone who doesn't understand how museums work," one official shared.
According to sources close to the situation, the NCMM has requested amendments to the former president's declaration from Nigeria’s Ministry of Justice.
Because of the controversy, Cambridge University postponed a ceremony to return 116 bronzes last month. The university is still “in talks with all parties,” a spokesperson said.
Barbara Plankensteiner, the director of the Museum am Rothenbaum, in Hamburg, Germany, said that the process of returning the bronzes to the rightful owners is full of complexity.
“The Benin Bronzes are colonial loot,” she said. She argued that the bronzes should be returned just like any stolen property.
At the end of the day, the bronzes belong to Nigeria and they, not their former colonizers, will make the final decision according to Victor Ehikhamenor, an artist and board member of the trust developing the Edo Museum.