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October 11, 2022

National Gallery of Art Repatriates Fowl Sculpture to Nigerian National Collections in Joint Ceremony with Smithsonian Institution

Nigerian 18th Century, Court of Benin, Fowl, mid 18th century, brass with cast iron supports

Nigerian 18th Century, Court of Benin, Fowl, mid 18th century, brass with cast iron supports, overall with base: 52.3 × 18 × 46.9 cm, 30.391 kg (20 9/16 × 7 1/16 × 18 7/16 in., 67 lb.)

Washington, DC—This morning the National Gallery of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) held a ceremony to mark the transfer of ownership of the National Gallery of Art’s sole “Benin Bronze” to the Nigerian National Collections along with 29 sculptures from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), and one sculpture from the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) Museum. These 31 objects from the National Gallery, NMAfA, and RISD Museum are among the first Benin Bronzes to be repatriated to Nigeria by American institutions on the basis of the 1897 British colonial raid of the Royal Palace of Benin.

Kaywin Feldman, director of the National Gallery of Art, delivered remarks at the ceremony held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, saying “The National Gallery of Art is pleased to work with the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments to repatriate this sculpture and return the remarkable work where it belongs—with the people of Nigeria. We are honored to join with the Smithsonian Institution and RISD Museum in this historic moment, as the first American institutions to return Benin Bronzes stolen 125 years ago from their place of origin.”

“Nigeria is immensely gratified at the commendable decision of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, the National Gallery of Art, and the Rhode Island School of Design to return these artefacts that left Africa over a century ago. Nigeria looks forward to working with these institutions on joint exhibitions and other educational exchanges. By returning the artefacts, these institutions are together writing new pages in history. Their brave decision to return the timeless artworks is worth emulating,” said the Honorable Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture of Nigeria.
“I am very delighted that these transfers to Nigeria by these eminent institutions are actually taking place. This event opens a new vista regarding American cultural institutions’ relationship with Nigeria. The event is a harbinger of greater things to come as other museums and institutions here in the United States with collections of Benin Bronzes are expected to follow suit. We hope for great collaborations with these museums and institutions and we have already opened promising discussions with them concerning this. The entire world is welcome to join in this new way of doing things. A way free from rancours and misgivings. A way filled with mutual respect,” said Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM).

Remarks were also made by Lonnie G. Bunch III, secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, Ngaire Blankenberg, director of the National Museum of African Art, Professor Abba Isa Tijani, director general of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture of Nigeria, and Prince Aghatise Erediauwa of the Benin Kingdom. Following the ceremony, representatives signed documents officially transferring ownership of the objects to the NCMM.

While it is National Gallery policy not to deaccession objects from its collection, in rare and special cases it may determine that objects should be deaccessioned for restitution or repatriation. Following years of research by the National Gallery staff into the provenance of the Fowl, the National Gallery of Art’s Board of Trustees voted on May 7, 2020, to deaccession the sculpture. Subsequently, the National Gallery communicated its interest in repatriating the sculpture to the Oba of the Royal Court of Benin. Since then, the National Gallery has worked with the NCMM to transfer ownership of the object on a mutually agreeable schedule and terms.

The Fowl was reportedly taken in 1897 from the Royal Palace of Benin, in present-day Nigeria, by colonial British forces during a punitive expedition. In addition to exiling the Oba and burning the palace, the British forces looted the royal treasures, distributing some to individuals involved, but selling most at auction in London to pay for the cost of the expedition. The Fowl was acquired by Alexander A. Cowan, a British merchant who worked for trading firms based in Nigeria, and sold at Sotheby’s, London, in 1954. The object was then purchased in 1955 from J.J. Klejman Gallery, New York, by Mr. and Mrs. Winston F.C. Guest and given later that year to the National Gallery. The sculpture has been installed in the galleries of the National Gallery periodically and has been lent several times to the National Museum of African Art.

The Fowl is considered one of the finest extant examples of Benin sculptures of roosters. It is believed that these objects were placed on royal altars honoring queen mothers. The rope border along the base of the copper-alloy sculpture suggests a date in the reign of Oba Eresonyen (1735–1750). The double-twist pattern represents “the rope of the world,” a royal emblem and symbol of infinite wisdom.

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