Over half of the artefacts from the former African Kingdom of Benin that are exhibited in Switzerland ended up there after they were stolen by British soldiers in the 19th century according to new research.
An 18-month-long provenance probe carried out by eight Swiss museums found proof that 21 items out of the 96 currently showcased were stolen during the Benin Expedition of 1897.
Additionally, the research found strong evidence that another 32 of the artefacts made from brass, ivory and wood belonged to the same group raising the total to 53.
The expedition was reportedly executed by a British force of 1,200 men under Sir Harry Rawson in response to the ambush of a previous British party under Acting Consul General James Phillips, of the Niger Coast Protectorate.
At the time Rawson’s troops captured and sacked Benin City, thus bringing the Kingdom of Benin to an end after which it was absorbed into colonial Nigeria.
In the course of the action, Benin’s king Oba was banished from the land after which the British troops looted more than 10,000 items and burnt the royal palace.
Museum Rietberg headquartered in the city of Zurich, said in a statement obtained by Newsflash: “The items, which became known as the ‘Benin Bronzes’, found their way into private and public collections across the world through the art trade – among others into Swiss museums.”
The so-called ‘Swiss Benin Initiative’ was voluntarily launched by eight Swiss museums who said they are now open to returning the looted objects to Nigeria.
The museum said: “Switzerland never owned any colonies and was not involved in the looting of the palace in Benin City in any way.
“Still, the Swiss Benin Initiative offers an important opportunity for museums in Switzerland to engage with their colonial collections in a responsible and proactive manner.”
Meanwhile, a Nigerian delegation arrived in Switzerland to arrange the next step of the process with the Swiss authorities.
Museum Rietberg curator Michaela Oberhofer added: “That can mean that objects from Switzerland are returning to Nigeria.”
Director General of the National Museums and Monuments Authority of Nigeria Abba Tijani said: “We want to give museums the opportunity to return these works of art to their rightful owners and display them legally – to do the right thing.”
Germany agreed to return 1,300 bronzes in 2021, while British and United States authorities transferred ownership back to Nigeria last year.