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

Christopher Knight, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

Allman was also one of about a dozen expedition members who photographed the wreckage. One grainy picture shows a group clad in pith helmets surrounded by piles of palace art. Warrior figures, jaguars, bells, hundreds of tusks, plaques — estimates are that 10,000 objects were looted.

A small, enigmatic 18th century copper mask to be worn on a belt sold to Wellcome in 1933 at Sotheby’s. Its solemn face and woven cap are decorated with frogs, a watery symbol of fertility and transformation that also appears in the plaque pendant.

A sculptural tableau of nine figures in a procession came from the collection of George W. Neville. Less than four months after the brutal sacking, the Liverpool trader displayed what he had carried off in an exhibition at London’s Royal Colonial Institute, a block from Trafalgar Square.

Surprisingly, two sculptures made by the Yoruba living about 140 miles west of the city have also been traced to the palace looting. How they got there is unknown.

Another dozen Fowler works are still being studied. Tracing ownership histories is thorny and often slow, yet essential.

LACMA has no curator for its modest yet significant African collection. The provenance for its fine Benin plaque is incomplete.


According to the museum, it was bought in 1974 from the celebrated New York dealer and collector Eugene V. Thaw with funds provided by the late Anna Bing Arnold, an unfailingly generous LACMA trustee. Thaw acquired it from prominent London art dealer Kenneth John Hewitt in 1954 — but there the trail of past ownership goes cold.

In a strange twist, LACMA also received a Benin sculpture of a warrior as a gift from renowned Hollywood agent Phil Berg, an amateur archaeologist. He donated his large collection of European antiquities and Asian, Mesoamerican and African art to the museum in 1971. (Berg died in 1983.) A LACMA spokesperson, when asked about the sculpture’s provenance, said the warrior was never received by the museum.

Last week, the sculpture’s collection entry was removed from the LACMA website. The figure’s whereabouts are unknown.

LACMA’s plaque was last exhibited in 2006. The altar tusk, belt mask and plaque pendant are included in “Intersections: World Arts, Local Lives,” the Fowler’s permanent collection display.


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