Nigerians have cried for a long time. But it is only now that Western institutions are really taking into account their duty to return the looted masterpieces.
Germany, whose state museums own about 1,100 bronze statues, signed a preliminary agreement last month pledging to return a large number to Nigeria. British universities have handed in a bronze rooster and a bronze commemorative head of a Benin oba or king. And the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art has removed bronzes related to the 1897 raid from exhibit and has begun the process of repatriation.
All that and a recent story from Globe reporter Malcolm Gay has pressured Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, which has housed 32 bronze statues since 2012, to spring into action. The moral argument for transferring ownership of the Bronzes to Nigeria is clear. And the museum should publicly confirm that case, in a way it has so far hesitated.
But what is a straightforward duty for other institutions is a more complex task for the MFA.
For starters, most objects are not the MFDs to return. Bank scion and collector Robert Owen Lehman promised the museum the 32 Bronzes nine years ago. But right now, the MFA owns only five.
The museum could move to ship the two plaques, two commemorative cups, and the pendant to Nigeria alone. But such a one-sided decision could lead to an ugly public split with Lehman, leaving the fate of the other 27 Bronzes in doubt.
And the worst outcome of this imbroglio would be that Lehman would take those 27 objects out of sight and rule out the possibility of transferring ownership to Nigeria. It is therefore better that the museum works with Lehman on a global solution for all 32 bronze statues.
The parties are now in talks. But that dialogue should not last long. There is a clear moral obligation here: many if not all of the MFA bronze statues are stolen and they must be returned to the rightful party.
The MFA has raised some questions about who exactly it should return the Bronzes to. There are three players: the Federal Government of Nigeria; the state of Edo in southern Nigeria, including Benin City; and the current 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 to display them. “It’s not up to art museums to decide which claimant is the right claimant,” Kathryn Wysocki Gunsch, the MFA president and curator of African and Oceanic art, said in an interview with Globe’s Gay for his story of the Benin controversy. bronzes. “You have to wait and see how it ends. That is true when there is a claim for our works.”
However, this concern should not be an excuse for doing nothing.
Other museums have chosen the federal government of Nigeria as their suitable partner. And the MFA should do the same. Indeed, it was the federal government’s National Commission on Museums and Monuments that called on the museum to “return these works to their homes,” shortly after Lehman promised them to the MFA in 2012.
Then-MFA director Malcolm Rogers rejected the plea. “We have every right to own these beautiful pieces and make them available to the world audience,” he told the Globe at the time.
But it’s clear now—as it should have been then—that Rogers was wrong. The museum does not have “all the right in the world to own these beautiful pieces”. the bronze belong to Nigerians.
Once Nigeria owns them, the country must take them over all go home if they want. There are plans for an Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City, which will house bronze statues from around 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. After all, they have been valuable cultural ambassadors. And they could continue to do so.
Nigeria could agree to the ownership of the Bronzes with the MFA, at least lend some of them to the museum on a long-term basis, and borrow other MFA works in return.
This kind of deal has a precedent.
In 2006, after decades of resistance, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City agreed to return a famous vase known as the Euphronios Crater to Italy in exchange for long-term loans of other antiquities.
Given the complexity of the MFA case, such a creative arrangement could work if the Nigerians are open to it.
But whatever the deal, the parties must move forward with urgency. The British stole the Bronze 124 years ago. It’s been a long time for justice.
The editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe editorial board. Follow us on Twitter at @GlobeOpinion.