In comparison to the monumental bronze statues being torn down by protestors around the world, a bronze sculpture of a fish, smaller than the length of an arm, might seem insignificant. But, just like the statues of slave-owners, this fish — which will be auctioned by Christie’s auction house in Paris next week — represents a past of violent oppression. As we reconsider who we honor through public art, we also need to think about the art inside museum walls and collectors’ homes.
Christie’s identifies the fish sculpture as made in the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now the country of Nigeria. But the auction house listing doesn’t tell you how the fish got from one of the oldest states in West Africa to end up in a private collection in Western Europe. The artwork is beautiful, but it’s no wonder that Christie’s has tried to erase this ugly history. In 1897, Benin was an independent kingdom whose ruler, the Oba, dared to impose an embargo on exporting palm-oil products into British-controlled territory. British traders complained, and James Robert Phillips, the Acting Consul-General of the neighboring Niger Coast Protectorate, advanced into Benin. His aim was to depose the Oba and bring the kingdom under British control, but his expedition was attacked by the Benin army. Only two of its British officers survived. A few weeks later, the British Admiralty, under the premise of avenging the dead, sent what they called a Punitive Expedition to complete their mission.
After three days of looting, the invading forces burnt down Benin’s capital city. A photograph shows the gaunt Oba, wearing a velvet robe but with his feet in shackles, just before he was sent into exile. Other photographs reveal triumphal soldiers squatting amidst piles of ivory and artworks they pulled from the Oba’s palace. These were just the first of the countless resources taken from a colonized Benin before Nigeria declared its independence in 1954.
The Punitive Expedition paid for itself in part by selling off artworks taken from the palace. The “Benin Bronzes,” as they became known, astounded Europeans who had thought of African art as crude. They were made by highly skilled sculptors beginning in the late 15th century to commemorate each new Oba. They included representations of animals, like the fish, that symbolized an Oba’s qualities.
By the time the British arrived, the whole history of the kingdom was displayed in the palace’s thousands of sculptures. But now, only a handful remain in Nigeria. The rest are scattered in museums and private collections, mainly in Europe and the Americas.
Earlier this month, Mwazulu Diyabanza, who is from the Democratic Republic of Congo, was arrested after leading a group of activists into Paris’ Quai Branly Museum to seize a wooden ritual pole they said had been pillaged from colonized Africa. Diyabanza, whose trial is set for September, faces up to seven years in prison. The pole remains in the Paris museum, where it has good company (it is estimated that more than 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is held outside the continent). The Quai Branly alone holds 70,000 artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa. Despite President Macron’s 2018 order that French institutions return illegally procured artifacts to former colonies in Africa, the museum has so far repatriated only a single object.
The Benin fish isn’t the only morally questionable item for sale in the upcoming auction. Christie’s is also offering two sacred sculptures removed from Nigeria in the late 1960s. The Princeton art historian Chika Okeke-Agulu calls these objects “blood art,” since they were taken in the chaos of a bloody civil war. A petition to stop their sale asks potential buyers not to forget that “it is not just the black body, but also black culture, identity and especially art that is being misappropriated.” The auction also features a Hopi katchina statue. Hopi representatives tried to prevent katsinim and other sacred objects from being auctioned off in France in 2016 but failed. The laws that prevent these sales in United States don’t apply in Europe.
The objects in this Christie’s sale allcome from the estate of James and Marilynn Alsdorf; the couple accumulated an art collection so large that it has provided material for multiple auctions. Earlier in June, the auction house had to withdraw four Greek and Roman antiquities from one of these sales when evidence emerged that they had been looted and smuggled out of Italy. Christie’s had listed these antiquities for sale with blank spaces in their history, just like the Benin fish.
I asked Christie’s when the fish was sculpted. The specialist who answered my email wrote that “one might think” it was made in the 17th century because it looks similar to another Benin fish sculpture made then, but the quality of its casting “might be indicative of a much later century of production.” In other words, Christie’s can argue that its fish was made either before or after the Punitive Expedition, depending on whether a buyer is comfortable with the possibility that it was looted or not. It is true that Benin eventually began to produce bronze artworks after its conquest, but these later artworks have a different style. I asked an expert in Benin Bronzes the Christie’s fish. They are confident it was made before the Punitive Expedition.
In 2011, an ivory mask looted from Benin was withdrawn from a Sotheby’s auction after public protest. It might be that Christie’s is testing the waters with this fish, to see if we have forgotten our outrage over the fate of Benin. But withdrawing Benin artifacts from a sale isn’t good enough. That just means that they go back into the hands of their current owners, who are free to sell them privately. Instead, the art of Benin should go back home. Owners can repatriate it themselves or work with museums to do so, as the grandson of one of the looters has recently done. Donations of artifacts to nonprofit organizations for the purposes of repatriation can even give an owner the benefit of a tax deduction without encouraging the market, as happened with the Aidonia Treasure.
Repatriating cultural objects will not make up for colonial despoliation. But as the ongoing protests about public monuments show, people care deeply about art. Letting a monument to a slave trader stand without listening to those who question its right to be there perpetuates white supremacy. Ignoring calls for the return of looted art is just as cruel.
In the case of the sculpture headed to Christie’s auction, it shows a fish, but not just any fish. It is an African sharp-toothed catfish. In Benin, these fish were revered for their powers of survival. They have special breathing systems that allow them to survive for a year burrowed into the mud of a dried-up pond before the rains return to let them swim again. This sculpture, like the catfish it represents, seems to have been in suspended animation since it was taken from Benin. Hopefully, it will have the chance to rejuvenate itself by returning home, where it can swim once more in the currents of the culture it was created in.