Following the British occupation of Benin City (Edo) in 1897 objects made of brass, ivory and wood were looted by British forces from the royal palace, its storerooms and compounds. Some of these objects were sold or exchanged on the coast. However, many were brought to the UK where they were sold through private auction, donated to museums, or retained by soldiers of the expedition. The British Museum successfully petitioned the government to secure some of the relief plaques and over 300 were sent to the UK by the Consul-General [Sir] Ralph Moor and placed at the Foreign Office. During the summer of 1897 the Crown Agents for the Colonies, on behalf of the Foreign Office, agreed a temporary loan of 304 plaques to the British Museum. In September these were placed on public display in the Assyrian basement where they attracted considerable public attention. The Museum initially received 203 of these plaques as a gift from the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs. In the summer of 1898 a further eleven plaques were sent to the British Museum from the Foreign Office and three of these were selected by the Museum and were subsequently presented as a gift. Of the remaining plaques the Foreign Office retained eight and the rest were offered for sale to major museums, collectors and private dealers in Europe and the UK. Today over nine hundred plaques are known to exist in museums and private collections around the world. See Collection File: Af1898,0115.1-203 (previously Eth.Doc.185).
Relief plaque, lost-wax cast in brass. Wide plaque, rectangular in form with side flanges. Background surface decorated with river leaf patterns and stippling. One nail hole at bottom centre, one hole at midway centre. Depicts central standing warrior figure, facing front, holding an eben sword aloft in right hand and a spear in left hand. Figure has diagonal dot scarification marks on torso and arms. Wears beaded crown, deep beaded collar, leopard's tooth necklace, beaded baldric, beaded bracelets and anklets, leopard-faced mask on left hip and patterned wrap-around knee-length skirt. Two flanking warrior figures, bearded, hold shields and spears, figure on left shares grasp on spear with central figure. Both figures wear highly decorative helmets, beaded necklace, leopard's tooth necklace, quadrangular bell, leopard-faced body armour, and wrap-around skirt. Two smaller scale emada figures in between; figure on right holds sheathed sword on baldric in left hand, holds unidentified object in right hand. Figure has shaved head with central crest and side plaits. Figure is naked with full body decoration, wears beaded necklace and armlets. Other figure holds circular fan in right hand. Figure has tiered hairstyle, with side plaits, triangular mark down nose. Figure is naked with full body decoration, wears beaded necklace and armlets. Two small scale hornblower figures above central group. Both have tiered hairstyles, beaded necklaces,and wrap-around skirts. Smaller scale figure adjacent to hornblower on right holds over-sized spear in right hand and has sword on left side. Figure has tiered hairstyle, beaded necklace and wrap-around skirt. Larger scale foot above this figure's head.
The relief brass plaques that used to decorate the Oba's (king's) palace are among the most well-known of all the royal arts of Benin. Although frequently described as 'Benin Bronzes' most plaques are made of leaded brass in various compositions. It is widely accepted that they date to the 16th-17th centuries. In the years prior to the British Expedition royal influence in Benin was increasingly under threat from rival powers, both internal and external, with a focus on economic power and control of the important trading monopolies. However, the court and palace remained the political and spiritual centre of the Benin Kingdom. Earlier accounts written by Europeans visiting the city describe its size and scale. The palace complex was set up around atrium courtyards; some had galleries with wooden pillars supporting the roof. Brass plaques, probably made in matching pairs, were fixed to these pillars. The Benin brass plaques represent a distinct and unique corpus of work, unparalleled elsewhere on the continent. They are cast using the cire perdue (lost wax) technique and show significant variation in the depth of the relief. Some of the plaques portray historical events or commemorate successful wars, while others are a vivid depiction of Benin court life and ritual. Several groups of plaques show clear stylistic similarities. William B. Fagg suggested that these plaques represent the work of master brass casters. Fagg, William, 1973, 'Nigerian Images', London: Lund Humphries Gunsch, Kathryn, 2018, 'Benin plaques: a 16th century imperial monument', London: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group ~Read & Dalton 1899: A chief with two small figures and attendants, grouped and armed as in the last figure. He wears a bead cap, collars of beads and teeth, bead shoulder-belt and spiral armlets. On the extended end of his waist-cloth is a leopard's head. He is punctured on the breast and upper arms, in addition to the usual cicatrices (Cf. Af1898.0115.78 and 59). One wears a scarf like that shown in Af1898,0115.16. The two small figures are naked, but covered with a trellis pattern, enclosing circlets. One has the head shaved, leaving a prominent crest, and holds in his right hand a clapper-like object ; the other holds in the right hand a round fan, like that seen in Af1898,0115.16, and down his forehead runs a broad band, which may be an additional tribal or other mark (compare Af1898,0115.70,Af1898,0115.72). Above are three smaller figures, two blowing horns, as in Af1898,0115.51. The third has a sword under his arm, and holds in his right hand a spear with the point upwards. Above his head is the foot of a larger figure, which has been broken off.~Part of Processional Pillar Set 6. Row 3C (Gunsch, 2018).