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Commentary: Two LA museums hold art looted during an African massacre a century ago

Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

The courtier stands frontally, feet planted firmly yet miraculously on thin air. He holds what appears to be an ekpokin — a circular gift box in which tribute payments were made to the oba, or king, and the oba made presents to courtiers.

LACMA’s collection website identifies the plaque’s material as bronze, but it’s more likely to be a copper alloy such as brass. Copper is plentiful in Nigeria, as is zinc. Tin, necessary for bronze, is less common.

Benin artists excelled at brass casting, made with a lost-wax process. Their production of refined plaques proliferated in the 16th and 17th centuries. Stacked atop another on the structural wooden posts of the oba’s audience hall as well as in the palace’s elaborate layout of interior courtyards, they charted centuries of royal Edo lineage and cultural customs.

Misidentification of bronze was common when the plaques were first stolen and later sold in the art market since bronze is a leading tradition in European sculpture going back to ancient Greece. The mistake, easily corrected with a simple metallurgic test, was so common that the entire genre of art is now known as “Benin bronzes.”

Locally, UCLA’s Fowler Museum holds the largest number of them. Founded in 1963 as the Museum and Laboratories of Ethnic Arts and Technology by Chancellor Franklin Murphy (later chairman of Times Mirror Co., The Times’ former parent), the museum soon received an enormous gift of some 30,000 works from London’s Wellcome Trust, established by American-born British pharmaceutical entrepreneur Henry Wellcome (1853-1936). Murphy, a physician, was familiar with the drug tycoon’s haul.

Wellcome was a voracious collector of scientific and archaeological artifacts and amassed more than a million objects during his lifetime. He acquired several Benin works before he died.

 

Within 18 months of the attack, Benin art was turning up in London salesrooms — some being sold to pay off costs of the African colonial expedition. Sales increased as the generation of British officials directly linked to the 1897 massacre began to die in the 1920s and 1930s. As Modern European art with stylistic roots drawn from African culture including Cubism and Surrealism continued to grow in stature, stolen Benin art steadily grew as desirable commodities in the commercial market. After World War II, African independence movements kept the spotlight on.

Fowler Museum Director Marla C. Berns, a scholar of African art, and museum curator Erica P. Jones are leading a seven-person team tracing provenance, or the history of ownership, of works in the enormous Wellcome gift. So far, midway through a 3½ year research initiative funded by the Mellon Foundation, six objects lead straight to the Benin palace attack.

An ivory tusk that adorned an altar commissioned by a mid-19th century oba, carved with elaborate figures, was bought at a 1931 London auction. According to Berns, the Foster and Son’s auction catalog described the tusk as “property of a Gentleman who was a member of the Benin expedition.”

A second 1931 Fosters sale offered a small, 6.5-inch pendant in the style of a three-figure plaque. Made between 1550 and 1650, the ornament is meant to be worn at the waist. It was sold from a large collection formed by Dr. Robert Allman, the 42-year-old chief medical officer when Benin City was burned to the ground and in a fierce act of British iconoclasm, a complex urban network of ritual earthen berms was plowed under.

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