It was theft. There is no question about that.
In 1897, British forces launched a “punitive expedition” against the Benin kingdom in what is now southern Nigeria. Bent on avenging the ambush and killing of a trade delegation from England’s Niger Coast Protectorate, the soldiers seized Benin City and plundered the royal palace — stealing the cultural patrimony of a centuries-old civilization. Thousands of plaques and sculptures that would come to be known as the Benin Bronzes were auctioned off in London and scattered among private collections and museums all over the world.
Nigerians have long cried foul. But it’s only now that Western institutions are really reckoning with their duty to return the looted masterworks.
Germany, whose state museums hold about 1,100 Bronzes, signed a preliminary agreement last month pledging to return a large number to Nigeria. British universities have surrendered a bronze cockerel and a commemorative bronze head of a Benin oba, or king. And the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art has removed Bronzes linked to the 1897 raid from display and begun the process of repatriation.
All that and a recent story by Globe reporter Malcolm Gay has put pressure on Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which has housed 32 Bronzes since 2012, to act. The moral case for transferring ownership of the Bronzes to Nigeria is clear. And the museum should affirm that case publicly, in a way it has hesitated to do thus far.
But what is a straightforward duty for other institutions is a more complicated one for the MFA.
For starters, most of the objects are not the MFA’s to return. Banking scion and collector Robert Owen Lehman pledged the 32 Bronzes to the museum nine years ago. But at present, the MFA owns only five of them outright.
The museum could move to ship the two plaques, two commemorative heads, and the pendant to Nigeria on its own. But that sort of unilateral decision could invite an ugly public rupture with Lehman — throwing the fate of the other 27 Bronzes into question.
And the worst outcome of this imbroglio would be Lehman taking those 27 objects out of public view and foreclosing the possibility of transferring ownership to Nigeria. Better, then, for the museum to work on a global solution for all 32 Bronzes with Lehman.
The parties are in dialogue now. But that dialogue shouldn’t stretch out for long. There is a clear moral imperative, here: Many, if not all, of the Bronzes at the MFA are stolen, and they should go back to the rightful party.
The MFA has raised some questions about who, exactly, it should return the Bronzes to. There are three players: Nigeria’s federal government; southern Nigeria’s Edo State, which includes Benin City; and the present-day oba, or king, of Benin (a region of Nigeria, not to be confused with the modern country of Benin).
Those parties have clashed over who should receive the Bronzes and where they should be displayed. “It is not for art museums to adjudicate which claimant is the right claimant,” said Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, the MFA’s chair and curator of African and Oceanic art, in an interview with the Globe’s Gay for his story on the Benin Bronzes controversy. “You have to wait and see how it sorts out. That’s true anytime there’s a claim for our works.”
This concern, however, should not be an excuse for inaction.
Other museums have settled on Nigeria’s federal government as the appropriate partner. And the MFA should do the same. Indeed, it was the federal government’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments that called on the museum to “return these works to their home” shortly after Lehman pledged them to the MFA in 2012.
Then-MFA director Malcolm Rogers rejected the plea. “We have every right in the world to own these beautiful pieces and make them available for the world public,” he told the Globe at the time.
But it’s clear now — as it should have been clear then — that Rogers was wrong. The museum does not have “every right in the world to own these beautiful pieces.” The Bronzes belong to the Nigerians.
Once Nigeria gets ownership of them, the country should take them all home if it likes. There are plans for an Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City that would house Bronzes coming back from all over the world.
But that’s not the only plausible outcome.
Estimates for the number of Bronzes stolen in 1897 range from 3,000 to 10,000. And Nigeria may not feel the need to repatriate them all. They have served as valuable cultural ambassadors, after all. And they could continue to do so.
Nigeria might agree to take ownership of the Bronzes at the MFA, loan at least some of them back to the museum for the long term, and borrow other MFA-owned works in return.
This sort of deal has precedent.
In 2006, after decades of resistance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York agreed to return a celebrated vase known as the Euphronios krater to Italy in exchange for long-term loans of other antiquities.
Given the complexities of the MFA case, this sort of creative arrangement could work if the Nigerians are open to it.
Whatever the arrangement, though, the parties should move ahead with urgency. The British stole the Bronzes 124 years ago. It’s long past time for justice.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.