The British Museum is currently undergoing a landmark investigation into one of its longtime curators, Peter Higgs, who allegedly stole priceless artifacts from its collection. The case has sent shockwaves across the world of art, particularly in many countries and institutions who have long fought to have their cultural artifacts repatriated from “The World’s Museum.” In particular, Nigeria and China have emerged as a vocal proponents of the British Museum’s security breach, which resulted in a number of gold jewelry and gemstones, dating back 2,000 years, being sold on e-commerce site eBay for as low as $51 USD.
“It’s shocking to hear that the countries and museums that have been telling us that the Benin Bronzes would not be secure in Nigeria, have thefts happening there,” said Abba Isa Tijani, director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, in an interview with Sky News. The Benin Bronzes, also known as the Elgin Bronzes, date back to the 16th century in the Kingdom of Benin (located in the southern region of present-day Nigeria). Made of brass and bronze, the sculptural reliefs were most notably made for the ruling class as a way to archive the Kingdom, many of which were stolen when British troops invaded the region in 1897. “They are the subject of loot. They were illegally taken out of the country,” Tijani added.
Similarly, China published its own inquiry via the state-run news outlet, Global Times, criticizing the British Museum for housing “up to 8 million items [that] came from countries other than the UK, and a significant portion of it was acquired through improper channels, even dirty and sinful means.” Amongst that lot, there are roughly “23,000 pieces of cultural relics” from China, including “Liao tri-colored luohan statues, ritual bronzes from the Shang and Zhou dynasties, stone buddhist sutra scrolls of the Wei and Jin dynasties, and other extremely valuable national treasures.”
British Labor Party politician, Bell Ribeiro-Addy, added: “One of the most insulting reasons that they’ve given is that the other countries that these items belong to would either not be able to take care of them or they are likely to be stolen…But you’ve got people in this country putting them on eBay.”
Ghana, Greece, and Ethiopia have also filed requests for repatriation, regarding gold jewelry looted from Ghana’s Asante Palace in 1874, as well as the Parthenon Marbles, and the Maqdala treasures, respectively.