10 Aug 2022

'The dial is moving' - Bates Wells advises on landmark return of Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

Team led by partner Erica Crump works to secure return of 72 artefacts in 'immensely significant' moment

Architectural detail of The Benin Bronzes, group of sculptures created from at least the 16th century in the West African Kingdom of Benin displayed at the British Museum

Part of The Benin Bronzes display at the British Museum Shutterstock

City of London law firm Bates Wells is advising Horniman Museum and Gardens on the landmark return of 72 treasured artefacts to Nigeria that includes its collection of Benin Bronzes. 

Partner Erica Crump, who led on the deal, said she hoped the return of the the Bronzes would “build momentum for other UK museums and charities to consider making the same call”.

The Horniman announced it would transfer ownership of the artefacts to the Nigerian government following a unanimous vote by its board of trustees. The Guardian reported the decision made it the first government-funded institution to return treasures looted by the British during the sack of Benin City in 1897. 

The Bates Wells team comprised Crump, the firm’s head of culture and creative, and Molly Carew-Jones, a senior associate in the charity and social enterprise practice. The duo worked with the museum to secure consent from the Charity Commission, its principal regulator, for the trustees' decision. 

Crump, who became part of the Bates Wells' senior partnership earlier this year, said: “I want boards and museum staff to have the freedom to openly discuss repatriation and make decisions. The dial is moving and we’re proud to have played a part.”

The Benin Bronzes are a group of several thousand plaques and sculptures made in the once powerful Kingdom of Benin in what is now southwestern Nigeria from the 13th century and are among the continent’s most culturally significant artefacts. 

African countries have long battled to recover treasures taken by colonisers, as Western institutions wrestle with the legacy of colonialism. 

Around 10,000 objects looted during the sack of Benin City are held in museums and private collections around the world, including 900 in the British Museum, the largest collection.  

The Horniman said Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments had requested the return of the artefacts, which as well as 12 bronzes includes brass and ivory ceremonial objects and everyday items such as fans and baskets, at the beginning of the year. 

The museum’s announcement follows recent news that Oxford and Cambridge Universities had agreed to return more than 200 looted Benin bronze artefacts to Nigeria and the German authorities repatriating the first of more than 1,100 priceless sculptures to Nigeria last month. 

Prof Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford, told the Guardian Horniman’s decision was “immensely significant”, adding that the move would increase pressure on the British Museum, which up until now has resisted calls to return the Benin items it holds, to change its position. 

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