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US Museums Return Trove of Looted Treasures to Nigeria

This past week, three US museums announced their plan to return 31 Benin bronzes to Nigeria, marking a significant advance in the movement to repatriate African artworks stolen during colonialism. In a joint ceremony in Washington, DC, the National Gallery of Art, the National Museum of African Art, and the Rhode Island School of Design Museum communicated their plans to transfer the important works, setting the stage for an expected raft of similar returns from other US institutions. The repatriation ceremony took place behind closed doors at the NMAfA, where 13 Benin objects have featured in a farewell display for the past two weeks. Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) will now assume ownership of 29 artifacts that were deaccessioned earlier this year from the Smithsonian collections, including brass plaques, commemorative heads and figures. The NGA has repatriated a sculpture of a cockerel following a vote held in 2020 by its board of trustees to deaccession the work. The sculpture — the only Benin bronze in the museum’s collection — was first acquired by a British merchant who worked in Nigeria and consigned the piece to Sotheby’s London in 1954. It entered the museum’s collection in 1955 via donors who acquired the piece through the New York-based dealer John J. Klejman.