On February 11, 2011 the Sotheby's, London will attempt to sell an extremely rare Benin ivory mask (representing the Queen Mother Idia) and five other important sculptures apparently consigned for auction by the descendants of Lieutenant Colonel Sir Henry Lionel Gallwey--the same soldier of fortune who participated in the plunder and destruction of the Palace of the Oba of Benin in 1897. This sale must not be allowed to take place. And I hope the Nigerian government or the Oba's Palace will seek an order of injunction restraining the Gallway family and Sotheby's from going ahead with this auction, until the Gallways can prove in a court of law their rightful ownership of these Benin sculptures. Moreover, Aso Rock and the Benin Palace should communicate in unmistakable terms to both Downing Street and House of Windsor their total opposition to this sale. They should also publish a caveat emptor on these works, even as they pursue other options. All legal and political pressures and popular action must be brought to bear to stop this sale.
It is one thing for the likes of James Cuno at the Art Institute of Chicago to continue arguing against the possibility of repatriating art works plundered by European powers in the age of colonialism but that have found their way into the so-called repositories of human civilization; it is another for the family of this plunderer to bring out the stuff their ancestor stole a few generations ago from wherever they hid them, in the hope of making a fortune. Do they think that waiting 103 years after the theft would make the works legally theirs? Frankly, I see no logical difference between the fate of these works taken from the Oba of Benin's private collection, and the works seized from their Jewish owners by the Nazis. This Sotheby's auction should present a good test case for the long-awaited process of righting a terrible wrong done to the grandfather of the present Oba of Benin by the British imperial regime. See my post two years ago on the same question of the return of stolen Benin art works.
At the moment a signature campaign against the auction of the Queen Idia mask and five other sculptures from the Gallway family is on. Please join this effort by clicking here
For news about this sale by Artdaily, the online newspaper click here