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MFA receives rare West African art pieces

This relief plaque depicting a battle scene is one of the pieces donated to the Museum of Fine Arts by New York collector Robert Owen Lehman.

The Museum of Fine Arts has been given 34 rare West African pieces from a group of works known as the Benin bronzes, marking a dramatic upgrade in a long-neglected area of the museum’s collection.

The 28 bronzes and 6 ivories come from New York collector Robert Owen Lehman, son of the famous American banker, and will go on display late in 2013 in a newly created gallery.

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“This is the transformation of our collection,” MFA director Malcolm Rogers said Thursday. “It’s some of the greatest art ever produced in Africa, and it has been poorly represented in our collection. It’s going to really open visitors’ eyes to an extraordinary world.”

The museum did not start collecting African art until 1991 and, before this gift, had only one Benin piece. Though the Benin works are very difficult to acquire today, hundreds of them are held by a few major museums, including the British Museum, Ethnological Museum in Berlin, and Field Museum in Chicago.

The MFA’s gap is one reason Lehman, who has previously not given to the MFA, found the museum an attractive partner. While his works might have languished in storage or been off view for a time at those other institutions, he has been assured the pieces will be on permanent display at the MFA.

“It will be an exhibition that brings out the historic context, the aesthetic value, and an exhibition that will be there permanently,” said Christraud Geary, senior curator of African and Oceanic Art. “It’s such a major, major gift and it’s so important for understanding African creativity and African culture.”

The Benin bronzes, some of which date to the 15th century, come with some controversy. Most of them were taken from Benin by the British in 1897 during a military invasion and sold afterward to private collectors and museums. Over the years, some archeologists and African government officials have demanded the return of the objects.

“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 she knew of no official claims for the works, and Rogers agreed there has been no claim made.

“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,” he said. “In the MFA, we can share them with people of all nations. We can present their history. It’s a complex history. And that’s our role. To move great cultural objects into the public domain.”

The museum declined to estimate a dollar value of the gift.

Lehman, who was not available for comment, released a statement that said, in part: “I wanted the works to go in a gallery where they could be shown in context that makes their power, beauty, and technical sophistication evident.”

Though this is Lehman’s first gift to the MFA, his grandfather, Philip Lehman, gave the MFA 375 historic costumes and textiles in 1938, and the Robert Lehman Foundation, founded by Robert Owen Lehman’s father, paid for 16 contemporary chairs and benches installed at the museum in 1982.

The Benin gift came about after Rogers heard last year that Lehman was looking to place his collection in a museum. Rogers called Lehman in July. “And I let him know we had an African collection here but one that his collection would strengthen enormously,” said Rogers.

Lehman visited the museum in October and was particularly impressed by the way jewelry had been installed in the Kaplan Family Foundation Gallery, Rogers said.

In January, the Lehman works arrived at the museum for inspection.

“I couldn’t believe it,” said Geary. “The only time I’ve seen them is at other museums, behind glass. It was very moving to stand right next to them.”

One object particularly stands out, she said. It is an 8-inch-by-6-inch sculpture of the head of a defeated leader. The piece, taken out of Benin in 1897, sold for 18 British pounds the following year. Lehman bought it in the 1970s for an undisclosed sum.

“Most African art tends to be quite abstract,” said Geary. “This is what’s so special about the Benin pieces. They represent people. If you look at the facial expression, it’s just awesome. You can feel the loss. It’s totally unusual for African art. It’s just a wonderful piece.”

Geoff Edgers can be reached at gedgers@globe.com.
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