By Nigel Reynolds
Buckingham Palace has been forced to concede that what it believed was a replica of a rare Benin bronze head, given to the Queen 30 years ago as a diplomatic gift, is, in fact, the genuine article “liberated” from Nigeria’s main museum in strange circumstances.
When General Yakubu Gowon, President of Nigeria, made a state visit to Britain in 1973 his officials told the Palace that he intended to present the Queen with a modern copy of one of the country’s famous Benin antiquities.
But, according to an investigation by the Art Newspaper, a specialist British publication, Gen Gowon, in fact, removed a genuine bronze head, about 12in high and dated around 1600, from the National Museum in Lagos as his gift.
Anxious to thank Britain for its support during the Biafran war, Gen Gowon initially asked one of his regional military governors to commission a replica bronze.
But he was disappointed with the result.
Professor John Picton, a British expert who was deputy director of the antiquities department at Lagos museum in the 1970s, said that Gen Gowon telephoned Ekpo Eyo, head of the department, on a Saturday to say that he was coming round that morning to choose a gift for the Queen.
“Dr Eyo hurried to the museum and managed to remove a few of the finest and unique items and put them in the store,” Prof Picton, who now works at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, says in this month’s edition of the Art Newspaper.
“General Gowon soon arrived. He looked around and took one of the bronzes from the display.
“Dr Eyo was horrified because it was quite improper for the state to be raiding the museum. Dr Eyo also realised that it would weaken Nigeria’s position in the debate over the repatriation of the Benin bronzes.”
Prof Picton also said that the gift made a mockery of Nigeria’s export regulations since a licence would never have been granted by the antiquities department for such an important item.
The provenance of the Queen’s gift came to light when an expert from the Art Newspaper recently saw the head displayed in a new exhibition at Buckingham Palace of state gifts given to the Queen during her reign.
Believing that the head was not a copy he called in Prof Picton and Dr Nigel Barley, another expert from the British Museum, with Buckingham Palace’s approval.
Both confirmed it as authentic, dating it to around 1600 and identifying it as a piece that would have stood on an altar in the palace of the Oba (king) of Benin for about 300 years.
By a strange twist, the head was probably in this country before. In 1897, a British Punitive Expedition looted the Oba’s palace and many bronzes found their way back to this country.
In the 1950s, some of the bronzes were returned to help set up the National Museum in Lagos. Nigeria was still a colony and it was the Colonial Office in London that bought bronzes on the open market in this country.
Nigeria is pressing for further bronzes, including some in the British Museum, to be returned. The Art Newspaper says that the case for restitution will be weakened by the discovery of the true nature of the former president’s gift.
Frances Dunkels of the Royal Collection described the head yesterday as “very beautiful” and said that she accepted the experts’ finding.
She said that there were no plans to return it to Lagos and that there had been no overtures from the Nigerian authorities.
She said: “At the time it was presented to us as a modern copy and there was no reason to doubt that. It was a state gift.”
Pressed on whether there was a moral obligation to hand it back, she said: “I don’t think that one can form an opinion.” (The Guardian)
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