About two years after Sotheby’s was forced to cancel a proposed sales of some 15th century looted art pieces of Benin origin, another heir of one of the beneficiaries of the 1897 expedition has surfaced as 32 works from the ancient West African city have been donated to Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, U.S.
According to the Wall Street Journal and other media sources in the U.S., the 28 bronzes and six ivories are donations from New York collector, Robert Owen Lehman, who is the great-grandson of a famous American banker and collector Late Philip Lehman.
Mr. Lehman’s great-grandfather, it was reported, founded the defunct investment firm Lehman Bros, and started “buying West African artworks at auctions in the 1950s and has since amassed a prized group of bronze figures from Benin as well as several ivory objects from 15th-century Sierra Leone.”
In December 2010, Sotheby’s was forced to cancel a proposed London sales of six Benin artefacts, including an ivory-made pendant mask of Queen Idia, the London, after an outcry and protests over the questionable acquisition of the works.
Works in the Sotheby’s cancelled sales were from the descendants of Lionel Galway, an army officer whose efforts led to the looting of the Benin Kingdom in 1897. Late Colonel (Sir) Lionel Henry Gallway (he later changed his surname to Galway) was the Deputy Commissioner and Vice-consul in the then newly created Oil Rivers Protectorate.
Few hours ago, all the news sources monitored suggested that Lehman’s donated works are from the 1897 looting of Benin.
Another online news medium states: Highlights include a 15th-century bronze bust of a young man with tightly braided hair and almond-shaped eyes, his lips forming a subtle frown. The work, Commemorative Head of a Defeated Neighboring Leader," once stood on an ancestral altar as proof of past triumphs. Also in the group of donated works is a stylized royal portrait from the late 16th century, Commemorative Head of an Oba, which shows the ruler's head chin-deep in a collar made from coral beads and capped with a crown made from braided strings and other beads.
The Boston museum is planning an exhibition of the works.
Most interesting however, the Boston museum management was quoted as arguing that the gifts meet all legal standard. Senior curator of African and Oceanic Art of Museum of Fine Arts, Boston museum, Christraud Geary stated: “We have looked at the legal situation here at the museum and we’ve come to the conclusion that the gift meets all of our standards,” said Geary.
She said there was no official claims for the works, and Rogers agreed there has been no claim made.
The museum’s director, MFA director Malcolm Rogers said “What entered my thinking was that here was a wonderful opportunity to move into the public domain objects which hadn’t been seen for decades and which spoke so wonderfully of the great African culture.”