Cheerfully grinding their magnificent fangs side by side, the two bronze leopards recall a journey as adventurous as it was cruelly absurd.
Looted by British soldiers during a punitive expedition to the West African kingdom of Benin in 1897, the bronzes were shipped to the United Kingdom, where they spent some time guarding the chimney of the Weybridge house of the captain of the army George William Neville. They were then exhibited at Moma in New York and purchased by a French art collector – who eventually resold them to the colonial administration in Lagos in 1952 at a considerable margin.
The ekpenor leopard figures, are two of the 5,240 objects scattered in museums in Europe and North America after the British plundering expedition but have now been brought together for the first time in a digital space.
Digital Beninthe result of a two-year €1.5m (£1.3m) international research project funded by the Ernst von Siemens Art Foundation, is the first comprehensive database of known artefacts collectively as the Benin Bronzes.
Bringing together around 12,000 images and information provided by 131 museums in 20 countries, the database does more than trace the often meandering provenance that European and American holders of the objects have in the past been reluctant to make public.
It also presents the artifacts in the context of the founders of the Benign empire, grouping them according to their importance and ceremonial function in the Edo culture.
“I’ve always had this desire to learn about the culture of my people,” said Osaisonor Godfrey Ekhator-Obogie, the project’s historian and research manager at a launch event in Berlin on Wednesday. “Each bronze plaque you see here was a page in the history of Benin.”
While Digital Benin does not yet include some bronzes held in private collections, project organizers have said their database is complete. “We probably haven’t reached 100%, but I’m convinced it’s 99%,” said Barbara Plankensteiner, the project’s lead researcher and director of Hamburg’s Museum am Rothenbaum.
Project participants include institutions that have recently returned Benin bronzes to Nigeria or have promised to do so in the near future – including Berlin Ethnological Museumthe Smithsonian Institution in Washington and the universities of Oxford and Cambridge – as well as those resisting demands for restitution.
The British Museum, the holder of the largest number of coins from Benin, is prohibited from permanently removing items from its collection under a 1963 UK law.
“This platform is a forum for knowledge production, not an instrument for restitution,” Plankensteiner said. “But it shows the local significance of the objects, the importance of these objects and the role they still play in ceremonial culture.”
By objectively mapping provenance histories, Digital Benin indirectly raises questions about the ownership of these objects. Another one couple of leopardsin ivory with inlaid copper spots recycled from rifle percussion caps, was given as a gift to Queen Victoria by Admiral Harry Rawson, who led the attack on Benin City on 18 February 1897 and oversaw the burning of the main complexes and nearby villages.
“In the Edo culture, only the Oba [king] was allowed to wear ivory, so claiming it as a trophy by the British was a sign of a transfer of power,” said Felicity Bodenstein, an art historian at the Sorbonne in Paris. Both leopards remain on long-term loan to the British Museum and belong to King Charles III.
While the routes by which bronzes from Benin arrived in European or North American museum collections were rarely straightforward, Plankensteiner said it was possible to say that around 5,000 objects listed in the database were looted. No provenance has been identified for approximately 400 objects.
“This is a seed project that will help us track down collection, but also looting and smuggling networks,” said Jonathan Fine, director of the Weltmuseum in Vienna.
The digital database has funding to be updated with further archival material and photographs and ownership changes for another year, after which organizers said they hope to turn it over to an institution appropriate in Nigeria.