Edo artist/Benin kingdom court style, plaque (16th-17th century), copper alloy (photo by Franko Khoury, courtesy the Smithsonian Institution)

The Smithsonian Board of Regents has voted to deaccession 29 objects from the group known as the Benin bronzes — an expansive set of sculptures that once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin and were hacked off by British forces during the Benin Expedition of 1897 — in the National Museum of African Art’s (NMAA) collection. The June 13 vote clears one of the final hurdles in a process that was set in motion in March by the Smithsonian Institution (SI) to repatriate a majority of the 39 Benin bronzes in its collection, which took place four months after the NMAA removed the artifacts from display.

In late April, the Smithsonian announced a new ethical returns policy that permitted its constituent museums to return any items in their collections they deemed to have reached them by ethically dubious means. It instituted a shift in the institution’s attitude toward restitution: Previously, the SI held that it had a solid claim to an item in its collection so long as the legal basis for their ownership was sound.

According to the terms of the new ethical returns policy, Secretary Lonnie G. Bunch III officially requested for the title of the 29 bronzes — which were confirmed to have likely been looted in the 1897 raid — to be transferred from the NMAA to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

A Smithsonian spokesperson told Hyperallergic that provenance research is still being conducted on the ten remaining bronzes in the collection. A repatriation date still has not been set.

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Jasmine Liu

Jasmine Liu is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she studied anthropology and mathematics at Stanford University. Find her on 

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