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US returns African bronzes stolen by British colonial troops

Thousands of Benin bronzes are scattered in museums around the world after being looted by Britain in the late 19th century.

A bronze sculpture of a West African king, which has been in the collection of a Rhode Island museum for more than 70 years, was among 31 objects of cultural value returned to the Nigerian government.

The sculpture, named “Head of a King” or “Oba,” from the Rhode Island School of Design Museum (RISD), was among the objects transferred to Nigeria’s national collections during a ceremony Tuesday at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC became .

The Benin Bronzes were stolen in 1897 when British colonial troops raided and sacked the Benin Kingdom, now located in present-day Nigeria.

“In 1897, the ‘Head of an Oba’ was stolen from the royal palace by Oba Ovonranwmen,” Sarah Ganz Blythe, interim director of the RISD Museum, said in a statement.

“RISD Museum has worked with the Nigerian National Commission on Museums and Monuments to bring this sculpture to the people of Nigeria, where it belongs,” Blythe said.

Among the pieces stolen in the late 19th century were 29 that the Smithsonian Institution’s Board of Regents decided in June to return to Nigeria and an object from the National Gallery of Art, officials said.

“Today we address a historical injustice by returning the Benin Bronzes, magnificent examples of Benin culture and history,” wrote Lonnie Bunch III, founding director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, on Twitter.

“Through this repatriation, we recognize a legacy of cultural theft and are doing our part to bring African culture back to Africans.”

The Head of a King piece, believed to be from the 17th century, was a gift from Lucy Truman Aldrich to the RISD Museum in 1939. It was in a 1935 sale of objects from the Kingdom of Benin by acquired from the Knoedler Gallery in New York, the museum said in a statement.

A French customs stamp inside indicates a French collection.

Although the RISD museum has not been able to link the piece to a specific French or British collection, it is almost certainly one of the looted objects, the museum says.

The bronze head represents an Oba or king of the Edo people of Benin, West Africa. The sculptures were commissioned by an incoming king in honor of a predecessor and placed on ancestral altars in the royal palace, the museum says.

The repatriation is part of a worldwide movement by cultural institutions to return artifacts stolen during the colonial wars.

In August, Germany signed an agreement to transfer ownership of the Benin bronzes in its museums to Nigeria. The collection has been described as the most extensive transfer of museum artefacts from a colonial context to date and includes 512 objects that came to Berlin after the 1897 looting.

In the same month, the Horniman Museum and Gardens in London announced that it would be donating a collection of 72 Benin bronzes to the Nigerian government.

Abba Isa Tijani, director-general of Nigeria’s National Museums and Monuments Commission, said she hopes the recent transfer will inspire other museums to give back African artifacts.

“We hope to have great collaborations with these museums and institutions and have already had promising discussions with them in this regard,” he said in a statement.

“The whole world is welcome to join this new way of doing things. A path free from grudges and concerns. A path full of mutual respect.”

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