Roberts: Antiquities of Nigeria – Benin Ivory (1976)

This is the first document in a weighty archival file titled Antiquities of Nigeria: refusal of British Museum to loan Benin Ivory Mask, 1976 Jan 01 – 1976 Dec 31. It is one of about one hundred pieces, letters, minutes and press clippings dealing with the negotiations that took place throughout 1976 in response to the request for a loan to the Federal Government of Nigeria of the Ivory Mask representing the Queen Mother Iy’Oba Idia of Benin, in the possession of the British Museum, for display at the 1977 FESTAC in Lagos. These documents were up until recently confidential and internal documents to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and reveal opinions and positions that were not at the time destined to be read by a wider public.

commented by Felicity Bodenstein

Original text   Brief biography   Commentary   Literature

Confidential, Mr. Heath, Antiquities of Nigeria: Benin Ivory.

source: FCO 65/1797, The National Archives, Kew, London.

1. Please see Mr Johnson’s letter of 19 December attached, to Mr Lewis.

2. Now that the Festival of African Culture (FESTAC) has once more a firm date, pressure to return the Festival’s symbol, the Royal Ivory of Benin in the British Museum, may be expected to become a live issue again. The background and the legal aspects of the case are set out in the enclosure to Mr Wyatt’s letter of 30 December 1974 to Mr Glaze. Mr Johnson is now suggesting that the British Museum could perhaps forestall inevitable criticism of its retention of this valuable piece either by loaning the mask to the Nigerians for the duration of the Festival, or – and this is the new idea – by putting it on special display in London.

3. After reading the past papers, I am confident that the Museum will resist the suggestion that the mask be sent to Nigeria on loan. They may be expected to put forward 2 reasons: firstly, they do not entirely trust the Nigerians to return it, and would therefore demand bankable assurances which it may be difficult to obtain. Secondly, the mask is extremely delicate and apparently needs to be kept free from vibration and movement and to be maintained in a controlled environment of exactly the right humidity to stop it crumbling. The Museum could reasonably anticipate that the Nigerians would not treat it with the care it demands especially since the Nigerians would tend to think of it as their own property.

4. The other idea set out in paragraphs 5 and 6 of the letter seems to me helpful and constructive and one which I should like, with your agreement, to suggest to the Museum.

5. I think it would be perfectly proper to do this quite soon. Previously we have been able to take comfort from the fact that neither we nor the British Museum have had any official approach from the Nigerians for the return of this Ivory. Such pressure as there has been has come from the press or from individuals, mainly expatriates. It would certainly be possible to do nothing until we were approached by the Nigerians formally; but we would then run up against our inability to be helpful in the way they would like. It would show goodwill on our part however if we were to tell the Nigerians without waiting for them to approach us, that the Museum would like to mount a special exhibition of the mask (and perhaps of other Benin pieces) to coincide with FESTAC. If this can be presented as being part of our contribution to FESTAC so much the better.

6. If you agree, therefore, I will talk this over with the British Museum and with CRD, and in the light of what they say reply to Mr Johnson.

Mr Fairweather
Cultural Relations Department
G 126/1


1. I should he grateful if you would look at Mr Johnson’s letter of 19 December to Mr Lewis, and my minute of 5 January to Mr Heath. A copy of each is attached.

2. I should be grateful to know your views before I resume discussion with the British Museum.

3. Mr Heath’s suggestion that we (HMG or the British Museum) might supply a good copy of the ivory has been made before. It has not been ruled out categorically; but I understand that the copy would have to be made “freehand” because the ivory is too fragile to be used to make a mould.

P J Roberts
West African Department
E MS 45 233 3442

6 January 1976

Brief biography

The author of this particular document is Patrick J. Roberts, who followed the affair throughout the year for the West African Department of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, along with a certain M. Heath, the addressee, and D. W. R. Lewis, who also signed much of the correspondence in this archive. His role as well as that of other members of his department was to mediate between actors defending very different positions on the issue, at the British Museum and in particular with the then director of the Museum of Mankind, Malcolm McLeod (1974–1990), British diplomates present in Nigeria, the issuers of requests by the Nigerian government and other representatives. They also collected many traces of the debate as it unfolded in the Nigerian national and local press. The ivory mask was taken in Benin City from the palace compound of Oba Ovenramen by the Consul General R. Moor as what termed a »trophy« during the so-called punitive expedition of 1897. Shortly before or after Moor’s death in 1909 it was acquired by the collector, doctor and ethnologist, Prof Charles Gabriel Seligman who went on to sell it to the British Museum for £ 37 in 1910.

Commentary – The diplomacy of refusal: negotiating the FESTAC mask

The document brings up three key issues that will be contextualized in this commentary. Firstly, the nature of the request, the arguments brought up by the museum to support its refusal of the loan and finally the alternative diplomatic solutions that were discussed.

Though the loan attempt is an extremely important and indeed iconic issue for the question of heritage debates in post-colonial contexts, and in particular for Nigeria, the exact conditions surrounding this famous diplomatic incident have never been published. The negotiations began sometime before 1974, when the Edo-Nigerian artist Erhabor Emokpae, one to the founders of the Society of Nigerian Artists, suggested the mask as the emblem for the second FESTAC (Nzegwu 2005, 38–39) planned to be held in Lagos. The mask become more particularly the affair of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office from 1976 onwards as it became clear that the Nigerian military government was preparing an official request for return. In fact, in June 1976, the Nigerian High Commission in London sent an official request for the loan of the mask.

By 1976, Nigeria had been independent of British rule for only 16 years and was in a difficult situation politically. Its military dictator, Mohammed Murtala was assassinated in February 1976. Although generally supportive of the position of the British Museum to not lend the mask, the archival material overall clearly shows that administrators at the FCO and British diplomates were initially open to Nigerian requests and their objective was to not let this episode further deteriorate an already tense relationship between the two countries.

In a bid to affirm national unity after the civil war, cultural initiatives were designed to play an explicit role in nation-building. Traditional leaders such as the Oba of Benin, Akenzua II, participated in initiatives that sought to integrate different traditions into a joint national narrative, as was showcased in the display of the »Unity Gallery« at the National Museum of Benin. At its opening in 1973, it largely showcased the donation of the Oba’s own collection, made sometime earlier for public access, and which had until then been kept behind palace walls. Plans for the Second Festac included a massive historical exhibition showcasing objects from all over Nigeria and Africa aligning the ambition of national unity with a pan-African vision of art and heritage. The list of objects requested by the Nigerian government that was sent to the FCO in June 1976 requesting the loan of the Idia mask also included objects from other African countries and other museums, such as the famous Ashanti Gold mask from the Wallace Collection, as well as pieces from the collections of ancient Egypt. These requests were later abandoned to focus solely on the ivory mask itself. It is interesting to note that in this document, Roberts is preparing for a request for definite return and the idea of a loan is evoked as manner of pre-empting such a request.

The arguments put forward by the Museum to pre-empt any requests, whether for loan or return, invoke both issues of security and conservation, though the thought expressed here that the Nigerian’s might not return the mask had to remain an unspoken fear for obvious diplomatic reasons. It would later however be related to a sense of indignation expressed in the Nigerian newspapers at the high insurance price that the British Museum supposedly requested. Much effort was poured into the formulation of a detailed, scientifically founded argument for not moving the mask; in a later letter from the 21st of January, 1976 addressed by McLeod to Roberts he provides details as follows:

I am told by my conservation staff that it is referred to as an anisotropic material. Ivory in this state has directional properties, and for this reason will easily warp on exposure to heat and damp. The Benin mask has now attained a state of equilibrium with its present environment. If moved to an entirely new environment, particularly one in a hot or very cold climate, cracking of the ivory might well occur.

This argument employs a language of scientific expertise that reformulates the remarks made by Roberts in the above text as requested by the FCO. Indeed, the archives bring up many different versions describing the mask’s material state that might receive a study of their own. The fragile materiality of the object is tied to both of the alternative solutions discussed in this document. The option of pre-empting requests for the mask by offering to »mount a special exhibition of the mask (and perhaps other Benin pieces) to coincide with FESTAC« was indeed carried out and later documents show that the Museum of Mankind created a special exhibit and coordinated with the FCO in order to establish the most suitable wording. The issue of whether or not to produce a replica of the mask however led to considerable back and forth, and very different opinions were expressed. The main problem in producing a »good copy« was that the museum also rejected the idea of creating a mould of the mask. This meant, as stated by Roberts, that the copy would have to be »free made«. Whilst the solution was never taken up by the Museum or the FCO, as negotiations ground to a halt at the end of 1976, it was this option that was adopted by Oba Akenzua II as a means to break »the impasse«. He commissioned the Igbesamwan (or the ivory carvers guild) in Benin to produce two replicas of the mask, one of which is today in the collections of the National Museum in Lagos. In relation to this commission Nkiru Nzegwu writes: »The fine workmanship of the replicas established that modern Benin ivory carvers are consummate artists, as were their forebears, and like the latter, responded with pride and reverence to the royal commissions« (Nzegu 2005, 36).

In 1976, for the first and only time since – the mask of Iy’Oba Idia became a question that was negotiated between the two sovereign nation states. More generally, the 1970s saw a wave of requests and an active series of debates in the context of UNESCO, these died down in the 1980s in light of the lack of response and the often passive resistance that they generally met with. In the case of the Benin pieces taken in 1897, there were in fact never any demands for restitution of the pieces made at a federal level and the point made by Roberts that “Such pressure as there has been has come from the press or from individuals, mainly expatriates”, largely remain true. However, since the end of the 1990s it is clear that the Oba of Benin himself and members of the court have also become more active internationally in joining such requests that have systematically refrained from examining legal options, preferring to pursue a diplomatic line of persuasion.

Felicity Bodenstein is a PostDoc fellow at Technische Universität Berlin. Her research focus is on the history of archaeological and ethnographic collections, and her current project for translocations is entitled »A Twentieth Century History of Absence and Presence in Benin City: Presentations and Representations of Objects Looted in 1897«.


Nzegwu, Nkiru. 2005. »Iyoba Idia. Mother of the Nation and the Hidden Oba of Benin« in: Benin, a Kingdom in Bronze, édité par Babacar M’Bow et Ọsẹmwegie Ẹbọhọn, Fort Lauderdale, Benin City, Nigeria: African American Research Library and Cultural Center, Broward County Library; Ebohon Cultural Center, pp. 34–67.

Cite this article as:
Roberts: Antiquities of Nigeria – Benin Ivory (1976), commented by Felicity Bodenstein, in: Translocations. Anthologie: Eine Sammlung kommentierter Quellentexte zu Kulturgutverlagerungen seit der Antike,, published 19.10.2018.


Eine veränderte Version dieses Blogeintrages in deutscher Übersetzung findet sich in: Isabelle Dolezalek, Bénédicte Savoy, Robert Skwirblies (Hg.): Beute. Eine Anthologie zu Kunstraub und Kulturerbe, Berlin (Matthes & Seitz) 2021.

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