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Commonwealth Games 2002

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Wednesday, 27 March, 2002, 15:38 GMT
Benin bronzes sold to Nigeria
The Benin bronzes on display at the British Museum
The Benin bronzes are on display at the British Museum
The British Museum has sold off more than 30 controversial Benin bronzes for as little as 75 each since 1950, it has emerged.

The bronze plaques were seized by the British in 1897 when they took over the kingdom of Benin, now south-west Nigeria.

Most of the plaques sold by the museum have been bought by Nigeria, says a 1972 report which has only now been declassified.

The Nigerian Government has called several times for all the 700 bronze plaques to be returned.

The revelation is an interesting one for those campaigning to see the Benin bronzes return to Nigeria - and the Elgin Marbles to Greece.

The museum now regrets the sales, reports The Art Newspaper.
The British Museum regrets selling pieces
The British Museum regrets selling the pieces

In 1950, the keeper of ethnography at the museum, Hermann Braunholtz, told the trustees that of the 203 plaques acquired from the Foreign Office in 1898: "About 30 are duplicate specimens, and therefore surplus to the Museum's requirements."

If there were two bronzes with a profile of a leopard, one was deemed to be a duplicate, even though they were individually modelled and cast.


The Nigerian Government was interested in buying the pieces but, because the museum did not know how much the plaques were worth, it sold four to a London dealer as a test.

The four went for 1,100, with the museum receiving 876 after deduction of commission.

The following year 13 plaques were sold to the Nigerian Government for 1,050, an average price of 75.

The sale was stopped in 1972. The museum's African specialist, Dr Nigel Barley, admitted the decision to sell was unfortunate.

Nigeria wants the pieces of work back
Nigeria wants the pieces of work back
"From a curatorial point of view, it was a curse. The bronzes were cast in matching pairs, so it is difficult to exhibit them properly," he said.

The fate of the plaques sent to Nigeria are in doubt as little of the collection of Benin bronzes is currently on display.

Earlier this month Nigeria's lower house of parliament called on its president, Olusegun Obasanjo, to request the repatriation of all the artefacts.

The sale of the plaques could also have relevance for the fate of the Elgin Marbles.

The Greek Government has been calling for the Marbles to be returned since they were seized in 1799 and given to the British Museum.

See also:

24 Jan 02 | Arts
Nigeria demands treasures back
18 Jan 02 | Europe
Nations squabble over antiquities
24 Jan 02 | Wales
Museum urged to give back relic
15 Jan 02 | Arts
Elgin Marbles 'staying' in UK
03 Mar 01 | Entertainment
Museum showcases African art
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