Dr. Felicity Bodenstein

Central to the consideration of the 5246 Benin objects currently dispersed across the 131 museums brought together here is the question of their ties to the British colonial military campaign on Benin City, or the ‘punitive expedition’ of 1897.[1] Led by British Navy forces and members of the Niger Coast Protectorate, in just under a week, it brought about the wide-scale looting and destruction of the royal palace and the city (Hicks, 2020[119]; Phillips, 2021[122]; Docherty, 2022[123]; Bodenstein, 2020[115]).

Objects Looted or Sold as Prize in 1897

Using provenance research to document the trajectories and ownership histories of the pieces contributes to identifying the royal treasures that were taken by members of the expedition. These make up most of the Benin objects presently in public collections. While it is realistic to assume that Benin pieces dated pre-1897 in public collections today were likely taken as prizes by the protectorate and the navy or looted by individual officers, other trajectories can also be observed.

Objects Circulating to Europe before 1897

A small number of objects arrived in Europe from Benin and surrounding area before 1897 – in particular the Benin-Portuguese Ivories, which have been included in Digital Benin in order to provide a full overview of the artistic production of the royal guilds (Curnow, 1983[35]; Bassani and Fagg, 1988[34]). The Digital Benin research team has referred to this group as ‘Contextual Objects: Benin-Portuguese Ivories’. The category Contextual Objects: Beyond Beningives an overview of objects produced by cultures closely related to the Benin kingdom.

However, it is important to underline that certain typologies of objects, particularly ritual objects, did not, to our knowledge, circulate in Europe before 1897. For example, the famous Uhunmwu-Elao, which are generally described in English as commemorative altar heads, or their accompanying Aken’ni Elao, sculpted ivory tusks, were unknown to Europeans, as they were presented on ancestral altars in parts of the royal palace which were generally closed to the public, as were the vast majority of the brass Ama (figurative low-relief sculptures) that were stored for conservation in a certain part of the palace (see Agbontaen-Eghafona & Ikechwukwu, 2004[6]). Such groups of objects were considered inalienable in so much as they had not been produced for commercial circulation and were destined for a unique owner.

Of course, the exception proves the rule: one might point to the only two known gifts made by Ọba Ovonramwẹ N’Ogbaisi to British envoys in the years leading up to the campaign of 1897. One in particular can be identified in the collections of the World Museum in Liverpool – an equestrian figure cast in bronze (acquisition n°1978.226.1) that was presented to the Liverpool trader John Henry Swainson in 1892. Commenting on the later acquisition of this piece, William Fagg, curator at the British Museum, wrote that it is ‘the only important work of art known to have come out of Benin City since the gifts sent to the Portuguese sovereigns in the 15th and 16th centuries’ (Fagg, Bassani and Willet, 1991, p.64[308]). Despite two other known exceptions, Fagg’s observation continues to hold true (see Bodenstein, 2020, p.101[115]). Importantly, this contradicts an argument that is often repeated, mainly in relation to efforts to oppose the issue of restitution, namely that pieces might have reached Europe prior to 1897 and that the circulation of Benin’s objects cannot be systematically associated with the events of 1897 (see, for example, Kilb and Trinks, 2019[309]).

Objects Circulating to Europe after 1897

There is a certain number of objects listed in Digital Benin that were produced before 1897, but that were only commodified / displaced in the years following 1897. Though not directly looted, their extraction was driven by a lucrative market for Benin artworks that was quickly established as a direct consequence of the events of 1897. The main example of this is the sale of Chief Ekholor’s private collection in 1902 as documented by a photo taken in Benin at the time of the sale (see Dau, 2022, p.239[115]).

Our knowledge of such instances of sales or gifts made by members of the royal court post-1897 is very limited and it should be underlined that this is probably only relevant for a few dozen pieces out of the close to 5000 objects that were directly looted by the Navy and Protectorate Forces who entirely emptied out both the palace of the Oba and the Iy’Oba Idia as well as many of the chiefs homes.

The process of displacement of the Benin treasures was swift and devastating, as Kenneth C. Murray, the founder of the Nigerian service of antiquities remarked in 1942: ‘At present, it is easier to study Nigerian art in Europe than in Nigeria. Thus, for instance, while there are two thousand pieces of old Benin sculpture in Europe, in Benin itself there are only a dozen indifferent ones’. (quoted in Bodenstein, 2022 p.228[120]).

Objects Produced after 1897

Perhaps the most problematic group in terms of identification are those objects that were produced and circulated after 1897, many of which are in public collections today. These can be considered as reproductions, replicas or fakes as they were often sold as pre-1897 pieces. Mainly produced in Benin City, where the guilds continued to work, adapting to the demands of an entirely new market, recent provenance projects were also able to identify the presence of early cast copies produced by Bamun artisans in Cameroon at the beginning of the twentieth century. An interesting example is the case of the objects in the Reiss-Engelhorn-Museen in Mannheim, Germany (see Schlothauer & Schultz, 2022[347])

Of course, the impact of the British invasion of Benin Kingdom in 1897 had “shattering effects” on the palace societies and producing guilds (Agbontaen 1988, p.112[334]). Casting continued in the early twentieth century albeit at a slower rate and in a changed manner due to the exile of Ọba Ovonramwẹ. In 1914, Oba Eweka II was reinstated by the British after a period of interregnum, and he began to make efforts to “re-activate” rituals and revitalise the production of court arts, including brass-casting and carving, however it was not until 1926-27 that the Divisional School of Arts and Crafts was established (Nevadomsky, 2005, p.70[92]). The artworks produced after this time introduced different motifs and styles, and for a commercial market, rather than the Oba himself (Dark, 1982, p.xii[62]). In order to focus on objects produced and/or circulated prior to these changes, a cut-off date of 1930 was chosen by Digital Benin to work with when reviewing objects for inclusion in the catalogue (for more information, see Object Research and Review Documentation). Artworks produced after 1930 constitute an important part of the developments of art production in Benin City, and thus a small number of pieces made after 1930 have been included but only when the artist who produced them is given in the institutional data, these can be viewed in the Contextual Objects: Post 1930s category. Understanding the role played by the productions that continued in Benin City after 1897, how these evolved over time and circulated to Europe throughout the twentieth century, is a particularly interesting avenue of future research on the Benin collections (see Agbontaen-Eghafona & Okpoko, 2004 [6]).

Current State of Provenance Research

It is important to underline that much of the work involved in clarifying how exactly the pieces were dispersed remains to be done and most institutions do not yet have complete or at least fully researched provenance records. The current gaps in provenance data continue to allow for different positions to be expressed on the relative importance of the periods of object movement described above, as well as on the level of proof required to tie an object’s dispersal to the military violence of 1897. In countries like the Netherlands and Germany, where there has been a move towards restitution, certain museum-led provenance projects have classified their Benin collections in terms of the probability of an object’s ties to the events of the expedition (see, for example, Hans, Lidchi, Schmidt, 2021[236]).

The data we have collected gives an overview of the current state of provenance research, and it is telling that one of the largest provenance-name categories that we have used to tag objects is ‘no provenance identified’. Indeed, there is no provenance information at all for close to four hundred objects in the data provided by the museums. This does not necessarily mean that the data does not exist, only that it was not provided to us. It is also interesting to note that in the data received by Digital Benin (2022), only 1,427 objects are directly related in the museum data to the British colonial military campaign on Benin, despite the fact that already in 1919, Felix von Luschan had counted the presence of close to 2000 objects from Benin in European museums (Luschan, 1919, p.13-14[48]). This implies that there are significant provenance gaps for over three thousand objects in the data that have museums provided to date.

Given the relatively short time span that the Digital Benin team had to work with the data (about six months, sometimes less depending on when the data reached us), the objectives in terms of commenting on and connecting provenance-related information needed to be relatively straightforward and could not include undertaking additional provenance research to complete the gaps and shortcomings in the existing museum data. Apart from the sheer quantity of objects that would have been concerned by such research, the main reason for this choice was that the research would have required a lengthy review process with individual museums, as a definite connection to the events of 1897 has a profound implication for the status of these objects. Additionally, it would likely have led us to cover the same ground as other research projects. Several institutions have recently completed or are currently piloting their own provenance projects; recent and ongoing projects with online or forthcoming publications include:

Bedorf, F. (2021). Traces of History: Connecting the Kingdom of Benin with the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne. Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, Cologne. Bronzes RJM Report Bedorf_030321.pdf. [238]

Hans, R., H. Lidchi, and A. Schmidt (2021). Provenance Vol. 2: The Benin collections at the National Museum of World Cultures. Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen. NMVW Provenance 2 (Benin) e-book.pdf. [134]

Hicks, D. (2021). The University of Oxford’s Benin 1897 Collections: An Interim Report. Pitt-Rivers Museum, University of Oxford. [119]

Dau, J. (2022). ‘Provenienzforschung zur Hamburger Benin-Sammlung’. In B. Plankensteiner (Ed.), Benin: Geraubte Geschichte (pp. 177–198). MARKK. Museum am Rothenbaum Kulturen und Künste der Welt. [23]

Eisenhofer, S. & Peraldi, A. (2022). Die Sammlungen aus dem Reich Benin und aus Benin City im Museum Fünf Kontinente München, Munich, report is forthcoming and will be published on the website of the museum: [345]

Friedel, J. & Peraldi, A. (2022). Provenienzforschung zu Sammlungsobjekten aus dem Reich Benin im Welkulturen Museum Frankfurt, report is forthcoming and will be published on the website of the museum: [346]

Hertzog A. & Uzebu (2022). The Swiss Benin Initiative, 2022, report is forthcoming and will be published on the website : [344]

Schlothauer, A., & Schultz, M. (2022). Die Benin-Sammlung der Reiss-Englehorn-Museen (rem) in Mannheim. Kunst & Kontext, 23, 40–79. [347]

Bodenstein, F. (2023). The provenance of the Benin Treasures in the Collections of the musée du quai Branly - Jacques Chirac, report is forthcoming and will be published on the museum’s website:

The bibliographic references related to the provenance names and their biographies indicate new results present in the museum data provided here when available. As is obvious from this list of project publications, the state of provenance knowledge about the Benin pieces is rapidly evolving. Some of this new research has been integrated into the data provided here; in other cases, this was not possible because of time constraints. Thus, it is important to keep these publications in mind and to refer to them in addition to the provenance data assembled here.

Rather than add to the existing provenance records for the reasons explained above, Digital Benin has for now focused on linking and commenting on the data provided by the museums so that the different actors involved in the dispersal and sale of the pieces can be more readily identified. The aim is to provide a basis so that it will be easier to make connections and relationships for future provenance research projects.

The first objective was to establish an exhaustive list of all the names of persons, institutions and other entities related to the trajectories of the objects present in the data. As a ‘provenance data’ field was not always an explicit part of every museum record (and also came under a variety of names: prior source, prior source role, provenance, event, date collected, place collected) all the fields that potentially provided information on the acquisition history or the history of past ownership of the objects were reviewed. Provenance names were sometimes ‘hidden’ in the data – for example, a name might be mentioned in the general description of the object without there being a specific field dedicated to this information, the name appearing in relation to other questions such as pedigree or authenticity.

The first task was to identify the different fields for all the institutions that would have to be read through to extract relevant names. These were then made searchable thanks to custom-built software that Alex Horak and Krystelle Denis specifically developed for the purpose of linking new data to the museums’ data without making any changes to it.

All the relevant museum data was then reviewed and the names extracted to form the alphabetical list provided here. The Airtable application was used to organise and qualify this list with additional data. Names were unified in terms of spelling and other variations in their writing to link all the objects related to each name across different institutions. Research was undertaken to establish correct spelling, and in some cases first names were added.

Names are provided in a standardised form for persons: surname, first name. Titles were placed in a separate field, and a geographic location was added when possible. Certain names were created to link data that was too disorganised to show up in a general search, such as the naming of the events of 1897 themselves. The provenance name ‘British Colonial Military Campaign on Benin, February 1897’ was manually linked to any data field that made it clear that an object was considered by an institution as having been looted in 1897, information that was otherwise provided in different forms (‘punitive expedition’, ‘Benin campaign’, etc.) and in many cases only implied through the presence of names of participants in the military campaign. Of course, so much provenance data is still missing. Only 1,422 objects are currently directly connected to the ‘British Colonial Military Campaign on Benin’ provenance name; as already stated above, this is well below even the most conservative estimates.


This process has resulted in a significant tool for researchers accessible through the Provenance section of the website. The main feature of which is a list of known current or former holders of artworks from Benin, including close to one thousand names of persons, institutions and other provenance entities present in the museum records of the 5,241 objects currently part of the project’s data (see the Catalogue). It is important to note that names of institutions have only been kept as part of this list when they are mentioned as a former owner. All the current holders of Benin objects can be explored in the list of institutions.

The next stage involved qualifying this list by providing additional biographical information and references when possible; however, priorities had to be set to manage time constraints. The first stage involved attributing pertinent roles (i.e., dealer, collected in the field, member of the Niger Coast Protectorate Forces) to the names accounted for when possible to provide an overview of the types of persons and entities involved in the objects’ trajectories. This entailed considerable research in some cases. For the entire list, we have also attempted to provide minimal biographical information through Wikidata and other links to existing research when the person or institution was either already well known or related to the later life of the objects. For certain names, however, short biographies and more ample bibliographic references are provided. It was important to focus on the history of persons directly related to the invasion of 1897 – that is, the names associated with the role of ‘Member of the British Colonial Military Campaign on Benin, February 1897’. A second focus was then placed on dealers and/or auction houses involved in the earliest and most important sales of the objects (from 1897 to 1945), as these are likely to help provide the missing links for future provenance researchers and are some of the most commonly attributed provenance names in the list – for example, William Downing Webster (860 objects) and William Ockelfield Oldman (291 objects).

Using the provenance search tool and its filters

The provenance search tool allows users to have an overview of all of the objects related to a specific name and to use other filters to view institutions and object categories that are linked to this specific name. Objects are linked to provenance names by the process described above: the identification of unique names in the fields related to prior owners and provenance. The unique names are found in data related to an object; each object is in a specific institution collection and otherwise identified by the research team in an English designation, an Edo designation and a specific object category. The filters show these relationships and the users can easily view this network. Additionally, when a provenance name has been selected as a filter, the remaining dropdown list provides only the other names that were also shown and identified  in the same object data. . If  more names  are selected as a filter then the search result shows  all of the objects related to the added names.

For example, looking at the filters for the William Downing Webster page, immediately indicates that his name relates to 40 institutions and 114 other provenance names that are also shown in the object data relating to his name. Selecting any of these brings up the objects that are related to that particular institution/provenance name constellation, providing key indicators on the different social and institutional networks that former owners were part of.

By filtering in only German institutions we see that 337 out of a total of 878 objects moved from Webster to Germany and as illustrated by this screenshot, we can for example see that 47 did so through the intermediary role of Hans Meyer. Used in this way, the filters themselves can become powerful tools for analysing the entire dataset.

Data related caveats and perspectives for the future

It is important to underline that the quality of provenance data provided by museums varies considerably from one institution and from one object to another. The number of objects associated with these names is thus merely an indication of what has been documented by museums and not of the actual number of objects related to them. If a member of the expedition on Benin is only linked to two or three objects one cannot assume that this is indicative of the total number of objects in his possession upon leaving the city. Indeed, it rather points to the poor quality of the provenance data that we have, as most of the more important officers in the expedition left with what Henry Lionel Galway called their ‘harvest of loot’ (Galway, 1914, p.94[131]), which in some cases we know to have been well over fifty objects. Galway himself is a good example, as his name has only been directly connected to two objects. Indeed, when we look at the numbers, it is rare that the museum data associates more than ten objects with high-ranking figures, like the consul general of the protectorate, Ralph Denham Moor, who led the campaign for the protectorate and had to justify the large amounts of loot he brought back to London in 1898 to the Crown Agents (Bodenstein, 2022, p.105[132]). In this documentation section, we will in the future also provide a list of known and potential members of the British colonial military campaign on Benin. These names have been collected from the related bibliography, and though they are not mentioned in the museum data, they are likely to show up in future research – this will be provided as an additional tool in 2023. Currently only approximately half of the entire list of names identified as members of the military campaign show up in the museum data.

A major question for future research is to understand the amount of objects taken in 1897 that are currently in the hands of private collectors. These are of course much harder to identify, but they were also excluded from Digital Benin to avoid any impact on the price of objects, which may end up on the art market again. It is also interesting to note that many of the institutional names mentioned here are found in recent sales of Benin objects, as objects were frequently deaccessioned during the first half of the twentieth century.[2] Systematically gathering data related to the sales of the Benin pieces, in particular sales catalogues, will also be part of the next steps to expand Digital Benin to other resources.

[1] It should be noted that private collections have not been considered in this study. Recurrent sales of Benin pieces on the art market indicate that a significant number of pieces are still in private hands.