The universities of Oxford and Cambridge could return more than 200 artefacts that were looted by British colonial forces in 1897, after Nigeria this year requested the repatriation of the cultural items.
The 213 objects, including many bronzes and some ivory and wooden sculptures, were taken from Benin City by British troops in February 1897 in response to a violent trade dispute the previous month.
During the attack, British forces burned the city’s palace and exiled Benin’s Oba, or king.
Several thousand brasses and other artefacts – collectively known as the Benin Bronzes – were taken by the British and subsequently sold off in London to recoup the costs of the military mission.
Considered of exceptional artistic quality and significance, these works were avidly sought by museums and collectors of the period, resulting in dispersal across many European and US museums as well as in the UK.
Claims for restitution date back to the mid-twentieth century and have intensified in recent years.
On January 7 this year, Oxford and Cambridge received formal claims from Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) for the return of the items.
Cambridge has identified 116 objects either known or presumed to have been looted, which are in the university’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology (MAA) collections.
The claim with Oxford is for 97 objects in the collections of its Pitt Rivers Museum and the Ashmolean Museum.
Both universities are supporting the claims for the return of the artefacts, which will be considered by the Charity Commission before their return can be authorised.
Cambridge University said its decision was in line with similar commitments recently made by other US and European museums, and reflects a sector-wide move away from keeping together collections irrespective of how those artefacts were collected.
Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments has said it welcomes proposals for loan arrangements that enable artefacts to remain on display, with appropriate acknowledgement, at Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology.
Professor Nicholas Thomas, director of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, said: “Across the international museum sector there is growing recognition that illegitimately acquired artefacts should be returned to their countries of origin.
“The Smithsonian and major European museums have announced decisions to return collections to a number of countries.”
Oxford University said it is expected that the claim for the return of the artefacts will be considered by the autumn.
In a statement, Oxford University said the Pitt Rivers Museum had received a claim from Nigeria for the return of “97 objects in the Pitt Rivers and Ashmolean Museum collections that were taken from Benin City by British armed forces in 1897”.
“The claim is now being processed by the university following its procedures for claims for the return of cultural objects,” the statement said.
“On June 20 2022, the Council of the University of Oxford considered and supported the claim for the return to Nigeria of the 97 objects.
“The university is now submitting the case to the Charity Commission, recommending transfer of legal title to the objects to the NCMM.
“It is expected that the Charity Commission will consider the claim by autumn 2022.”
The Nigerian government is developing the Edo Museum of West African Arts, along with a storage and study facility for returned artefacts, which is currently under construction next to the existing Benin City museum.