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Episode Transcript

Last episode, we began with a simple question: how do the artworks and artifacts that you see in a museum wind up in a museum?

Victoria REED: For a long time, the entire art world didn’t ask questions.

Andrea BAYER: The Met got fooled by not probing deeply enough into the purported history that was given to us.

Matthew BOGDANOS: Guess what? My kids know it’s looted. 

But the museum world is changing. 

Jim MARRONE: Museums are now returning dozens of objects every single year. 

Bénédicte SAVOY: It’s like Olympic Games for restitution.

Lonnie BUNCH: Even though technically we legally acquired these, the origins of the acquisition was illegal, so therefore everything else was tainted as well. 

Today on Freakonomics Radio: We will explore one dramatic case that isn’t settled yet.

Victor EHIKHAMENOR: The disruption of the attack on the kingdom cannot be overemphasized. 

SAVOY: Most important pieces went directly to the British Museum.

Dan HICKS: They even took the bolts from the doors.

It turns out that stealing art can be relatively easy. But giving it back? That’s the hard part.

David FRUM: If the job is to purify yourself by getting rid of the art, yeah, put it in a pit, melt it.

*      *      *

Matthew Bogdanos is a former Marine colonel who now runs the Antiquities Trafficking Unit in the Manhattan District Attorney’s office. We met him in our previous episode.

BOGDANOS: We do not, under any circumstances, want to denude New York of its cultural treasures. If it’s legal, great. We should keep it. But if it’s illegal, then it should go back to the country of origin. 

But how does that happen? If a museum or a private collector on Fifth Avenue has a 3,000-year-old treasure that is found to have been looted or otherwise stolen — the country of origin may not even exist anymore. So how does Bogdanos manage that?

BOGDANOS: Every country treats these differently. But we have yet to have a country who hasn’t just been over-the-top appreciative and extraordinarily gracious. We’ve returned an antiquity to Iran. Wait a second. U.S. doesn’t have diplomatic relations with Iran. What do I care? I’m not a politician. We returned a piece to the Palestinian Authority. Now, move the map to Southeast Asia. India, Thailand, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Pakistan — for that area of the world, these antiquities are idols. They’re worshiped. And the number of times I have gone into a temple in India, in southern India particularly, and it’s empty. And they’re still worshiping the empty pedestal or they have a photograph of an idol that was stolen, or they had a wax or wooden model. And now this goes in someone’s Fifth Avenue apartment? Get the hell out of here. I mean, are you kidding me? So we never lose sight of the fact that at the other end of our entire process — the prosecution, recovery, and repatriation — there’s a community on the other side. 

Bogdanos makes all this sound rather clear-cut. And that makes sense: he is a prosecutor; he’s guided by the law; and the law, while complicated, is also decisive. It declares a winner and a loser; legal possession or illegal possession. But art is even more complicated than the law.

FRUM: Art is a place where our deepest spiritual values meet the marketplace. So that causes all kinds of questions. I mean, how do you put a price on art? People do. It’s a vast marketplace. And strange things happen when you mix the most spiritual with the most commercial. 

That is David Frum, a staff writer at The Atlantic. In 2022, he published a piece called “Who Benefits When Western Museums Return Looted Art?”

FRUM: It’s one thing when, you know, there’s a war in Ukraine, and the Russian forces break into a museum in a Ukrainian city, and they take the artworks and they put them in crates, and they take them back to Russia. And then the war ends five years later. And there’s a peace treaty. That art — we know where it came from. It had a possessor. The possessors are still alive; they are institutions that still exist. And we can arrange for the art to come back from Russia to the museum in Ukraine from which it was taken. But when we’re talking about lapses of 100, 200, 500 years, the whole concept of theft becomes kind of cracked. The second-most-famous Greek artwork in a European museum is the Pergamum Altar in Berlin, which was unearthed by German archeologists. Pergamum was a city on the west coast of what is now Turkey. The artists who made the work were Greek. The king who commanded the work was of mixed Greek and Macedonian origin, and the taxpayers who paid for it spoke all the mingled languages of what was then Asia Minor, Anatolia, and some of the more Semitic and some of the more other vanished groups. So who gets it? Turkey? Greece? Macedon? Syria? Because that’s probably the place that is closest to the culture of the people who paid the taxes? I mean, it’s gone. That world is gone. So there is no one to give it back to. It’s just an illusion.

I went back to Matthew Bogdanos, the prosecutor, with David Frum’s argument.

DUBNER: Now, there are those who would say that your position is noble but naive in that you are putting a physical piece of property into the hands of someone who may be a generation or ten generations removed from the origin, from either the creator or the owner. And there are a number of ways that could be problematic. Those pieces might be sold into the black market, wind up in the palace of some Gulf State prince or a Chinese or American billionaire. So how do you think about those potential bad outcomes? 

BOGDANOS: Let’s see, I’ve been in three wars. I’ve had six combat tours. I’m a career homicide prosecutor. No one has ever actually called me naive before.

DUBNER: You’re welcome. 

BOGDANOS: I’ve seen mass graves in Kosovo and Iraq. So, no, I’m not naive. I recognize the world. And that’s where I get to say to you: We’re not the Acme Judgment Company. We don’t get to pick and choose. We have a burglary in the Upper East Side. This person has 19 televisions, and 18 of them are stolen. When we catch the guy, do we get to say, “Mmm, you have 19, you don’t need them back. We’re going to keep them,” or “We’re going to give them to other people.” That’s not how that works, all right? And if our victim is a country whose political regime we don’t particularly care for? Tough. We actually have a very good relationship with the countries that we operate with on our level. So I’m talking about the Ministry of Culture or the Ministry of Antiquities. We actually require that these countries sign a document at the repatriation ceremony promising that they will maintain the antiquity that’s being returned — and, wait for it — publicly display it. 

DUBNER: And is that document enforceable? 

BOGDANOS: Is it legally enforceable? Almost certainly not. But here’s how it’s enforceable. The next time you have an antiquity from that country that’s looted, and you call me — am I really the person you want to piss off? Do you really want to say, “I know we promised Colonel Bogdanos and the Manhattan D.A.’s office that we’re going to maintain this and we’re going to publicly display it. But you know what? Forget that.” Oops. And the next time we have an Iranian antiquity? “Mr. Minister, I’m so sorry.” Believe it or not, these countries really honor these requests. In India particularly, it’s really heartwarming. They will send us videos of the community receiving their idol back. And I’m telling you, it’s insane. Like, 50 people screaming and yelling and singing and chanting. And they’re holding this 150-pound idol up over their heads as they march it into the temple. We’ve had these things in Cambodia. We see these ceremonies in Egypt — it’s followed from the plane right to its resting place in the museum in Cairo; or in Lebanon. We have ongoing relationships across the globe with all these countries. It’s in their best interest to honor their agreement with us. So we are not returning stuff that is then getting put on the market or being put in storage rooms. 

If you were looking for the single-most-interesting case of returning art — or restituting or repatriating art, as various people call it — I would nominate the case of the Benin Bronzes. Although that name is a bit misleading. Some of the pieces are indeed made from bronze, but many are not. And while there is today an African country called Benin, just west of Nigeria, the bronzes came from the historic Kingdom of Benin, in what is now Edo state in southern Nigeria. In any case: the Benin Bronzes are a massive collection of art, artifacts, and religious objects that have been displayed for years in more than 160 museums around the world, including the Smithsonian in the U.S., the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, the Kelvingrove in Glasgow, and especially the British Museum in London, which is the mother lode of Benin Bronzes, and which plays a starring role in our story. The British Museum is surely one of the world’s great museums; some people consider it the greatest, especially for antiquities. But others consider it — how shall we say this? — a trophy case for the spoils of war. Here, putting it far better than I ever could, is the English comedian James Acaster:

James ACASTER: A long time ago, everyone in Britain got in a big old boat, and we robbed — and this will sound far-fetched — everyone in the world. And we got all the swag, didn’t we? And we took it back to old Blighty. And we hid it — this is the clever part — we hid it in a museum. Now, a few of you are sitting there, I can see your angry faces like, “So what, finders keepers, shut up!” “Hey man, a while ago, a lot of your ancestors stole loads of stuff from my ancestors. Yeah, I’m here to take them home, let’s right this wrong, what do you say?” “I don’t think so. We’re still looking at it!”

How true to history is James Acaster’s version? Let’s find out by doing what we usually do, which is calling up the academic experts.

HICKS: Hi. So my name is Professor Dan Hicks. I work at the University of Oxford as a curator at our anthropology museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum. 

Okay, so where does this story begin?

HICKS: Yeah, okay. So if we wind back to 1884 and Berlin, and the meeting of the European nations in the Berlin Congress — 

DUBNER: This is where they sit down with a map of Africa and say, “You get this, I get that.” That kind of thing? 

HICKS: Exactly, exactly. And so, what is now Nigeria was part of the pink area for the British. But not part of Empire at that point; not turning them into colonies at that point. There are other entities. There are protectorates. There are areas controlled by the companies — in this case, the Royal Niger Company.

The Royal Niger Company was a trading firm that essentially served as an arm of the British government.

HICKS: So we have to imagine this as a corporate and militarist form of empire. And really, this is all about palm oil. It’s about the rubber industry.

In 1892, the Royal Niger Company signed a trade treaty with the Oba, or king, of Benin. Within just a few years, it was decided that the Oba wasn’t as cooperative as Britain would have liked, and they sent an expedition to Benin to work things out, headed up by one James Phillips. Things didn’t work out at all: the group was attacked, and Phillips and most of his men were killed. The British response was what came to be known as a “punitive expedition.”

HICKS: And of course, it’s one of so many other expeditions that happened in these 1890s years. 

This expedition, to Benin, involved 10 Royal Navy ships and 1,400 soldiers, armed with the recently invented Maxim machine gun. The Benin defenders had machetes, pistols, and muskets. The British forces had no trouble taking the Kingdom of Benin. They massacred the population, burned the city; they captured the Oba and sent him into exile.

EHIKHAMENOR: The disruption of the attack on the kingdom cannot be overemphasized.

That is Victor Ehikhamenor.

EHIKHAMENOR: I’m an artist and a writer from Nigeria.

Ehikhamenor is from Edo state, the historic location of the Kingdom of Benin. He is one of the artists who represented Nigeria’s debut in the Venice Biennale, in 2017.

EHIKHAMENOR: They kind of created a vacuum for us by removing an entire people’s history. This is what we would consider our library, a visual library, for that matter, was completely erased now. And what they didn’t burn, they looted.

That’s right, what the British didn’t burn, they looted — thousands of objects from the ceremonial halls of the Oba. These included bronze and brass relief plaques that told the story of hundreds of years’ worth of Benin history; commemorative brass heads that had adorned the shrines of royal ancestors; they took carved ivory tusks, coral beads; brass bells, figures, and gaming boards. Even household items like flasks, cups, bowls, spoons, saltshakers.

EHIKHAMENOR: The Western colonizers were kleptomaniacs. They stole hair pins. They stole keys to the doors in the palace. 

And where did all this loot go?

SAVOY: In the 19th and 20th century, there were four European countries accumulating African art. It was France, the U.K., Belgium, and Germany. 

That is Bénédicte Savoy, a French professor of art history at the Technical University in Berlin. As for the Benin plunder:

SAVOY: Most important pieces went directly to the British Museum. But the rest has been sold on the art market. And the art market around 1900, it’s a best time for the art market. You know, Picasso is a very young guy. All these avant gardes are interested in African art. And the art market in Europe made a lot of money with all these objects. And the richest museums at that time in Europe were the German museums. Because German was a reich now, and if you are a reich, an empire, you need a museum. It was absolutely normal in Europe at that time to have huge museums in the capitals of empires, like British Museum, etc. So the Germans said, “Okay, we have only Cameroon, Tanzania, Togo, and Namibia right now. And let’s buy things from Benin City.” This very, very important, beautiful culture. And they bought a lot of bronzes. Six hundred only in Berlin. 

HICKS: Within weeks of this attack, the bronzes were on display in London, Oxford, Berlin, and elsewhere. And they were displayed — if we go back to the British Museum — they were displayed in the Assyrian Saloon alongside objects from ancient Egypt, objects from the Bronze Age, from the ancient Near East. So the narrative was absolutely obvious: we have blown your culture back into the Bronze Age. This is a dead culture.

I’m not sure the narrative is as “absolutely obvious” as Dan Hicks says. Still, the British Museum has been, for a few centuries now, a physical archive of one nation’s enthusiasm for conquest and empire-building. That era, as you know, is long gone; and yet the evidence — even the bloodiest evidence imaginable, like the Benin Bronzes — is still proudly on display.

ACASTER: This is the clever part — we hid it in a museum.

*      *      *

We have been speaking with Dan Hicks, a professor at Oxford.

HICKS: So I think I’m the world’s first — well, I am the world’s first professor of contemporary archeology. 

And what is contemporary archeology?

HICKS: I mean, it’s tautological in some ways. But I think it underlines something really important about all archeology. Archeology in some ways is the inverse of history. So in this case, in terms of the thing that we’re talking about, the idea the empire actually isn’t over. It’s here with us in the present. It’s here with us in locations that include our museums. 

Hicks, remember, is also a curator at Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum.

HICKS: As a part of my work there, we are responsible for one of the larger collections of the Benin Bronzes. 

DUBNER: I know there was a tweet sent out in 2015 by a grassroots student movement. It said, “The Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the most violent spaces in Oxford.” Tell me your response when you first saw that tweet? 

HICKS: You know, I had — at that point, I had simply never seen it that way. I mean, this is one of those marmalade-dropping moments of your career, right? You’re halfway through your breakfast and, “Oh, right, let’s think this through.” So for me, it’s all about learning from a new generation. I mean, I’m now 50 years old. And it’s the people who are in their twenties who are reading this material so differently and are showing us things that have been sitting in plain sight for so long. 

As Hicks began to “think things through,” as he puts it, his views shifted, and hard. Today, he has a zeal that may remind you of a religious convert. Consider the book he published in 2020. It’s called The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. Here is a typical sentence: “The sacking of Benin City in February 1897 was an attack on human life, on culture, on belief, on art, and on sovereignty.” In just a few years, Hicks had become a flag-bearer for the movement to repatriate the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. Nigeria, by the way, had been trying to reclaim the Bronzes since the 1930s. They began asking more insistently after gaining independence from Britain in 1960, but not much happened. In 2010, a consortium of Western museums joined a few Nigerian institutions to form the Benin Dialogue Group. The idea was to establish a new museum in Benin City, Nigeria, that would display the bronzes once the Western museums decided to return them. But once again, not much happened — until, as it turns out, the year 2020. As David Frum wrote in his Atlantic article: “The George Floyd protests of 2020 jolted the group into hyperactivity.” It might seem strange that the murder of a black man by a white police officer in America would trigger a global sentiment to return art looted from Nigeria by Britain some 130 years earlier — or maybe not; the parallels were — as Dan Hicks might say — “hidden in plain sight.” Here, again, is Bénédicte Savoy:

SAVOY: Now, today, in the 21st century, France, the U.K., Belgium, and Germany are, yeah — it’s like Olympic Games for restitution. They are fighting for, or they are struggling in order to be the first to restitute important collections. 

Savoy herself has played a significant role in this restitution drama. In 2017, French president Emmanuel Macron visited several former French colonies in Africa. Like the British, French colonizers had sacked and looted their way through sub-saharan Africa, and sent home thousands of treasures that are still on display in French museums. During a speech at a university in Burkina Faso, Macron said, “I cannot accept that a large part of cultural heritage from several African countries is in France.” Savoy, who was already sympathetic to returning African art, wrote an article calling Macron’s speech a “revolution”; and Macron promptly appointed Savoy, along with the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr to push the revolution along. Savoy and Sarr visited museum directors and government officials in four African countries, and they wrote a nearly 200-page report that Macron apparently found so persuasive that he immediately promised to restitute thousands of objects to the country of Benin, and to loan money to build a new museum there. But returning a massive collection of art and artifacts so weighted with history is not simple. Critics said the report was too ambitious, and too academic, to be realistic. Furthermore, French law prohibits the removal of artwork from public collections, at least for the time being. The British Parliament had similarly passed laws making it hard to deaccession works from their public museums — although recent legislation has given museum trustees more leeway. At the moment, several museums in several countries have at least begun the process of repatriating African art.

SAVOY: And I think the most competitive tandem is between Germany and France right now. 

DUBNER: What’s in it for them? What do they gain by restituting? 

SAVOY: It’s difficult to say, but it’s obvious that the restitution has something to do with soft power, with soft diplomacy. You are speaking about art, about beauty, about emotions. But at the same time, you are doing something like, “I show you that I am confident in your ability to protect your own cultural heritage.” Or, “let me build a museum for you with my money,” or something like that. It’s not only about moving objects from A to B or from B to C, etc. It’s about a new art of relationship with these countries. And for France — France has a very, very bad reputation in the former colonies, in Senegal, in Mali, in Burkina Faso, in Cameroon, etc. And I think Emmanuel Macron tried to do what he can in order to repair this very bad reputation.

DUBNER: So okay, in the Restitution Olympics, as you put it, France and Germany are fighting to be number one — which, knowing those two countries and their complicated histories and their current political situation, maybe doesn’t surprise me so much. But the U.K. — well, I guess the U.K. is variegated. There’s some restitution going on. But from what I can tell, the British Museum is not particularly interested in restituting and not even talking about restituting.

SAVOY: Yes, it’s very strange because in the seventies and eighties, the U.K. was the motor of the discussion with Ghana, with Nigeria. And you had very important stakeholders in Oxford and Cambridge fighting for restitutions, and also very normal people writing letters to The Times saying, “We need to have better relations to Ghana,” for example. And now, I think you’re right, the British Museum, the state museums in the U.K., are very reluctant to speak about these topics. They are observing the situation very carefully, like an animal, observing a very difficult situation before he know what to do. And I can understand it because, as you say, the British Museum is a trophy of war, like all museums. Museums have a golden face and a very dark face. And we are used to know only this shiny face, the sunny face. And I think for a museum like the British Museum, if they will tell the truth about the history of collections, it would be so disgusting that it would be the end of the British Museum. Not the end because it would be empty, but the end because it’s so disgusting that nobody will be very comfortable with visiting such a museum.

The British Museum is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, and they’ve given a few million dollars toward a proposed museum in Nigeria. But as for their plans to legally and/or physically return their Benin Bronzes? That’s hard to say. The British Museum declined our multiple requests for an interview — which seems to be what they do when anyone asks them to discuss this situation. Oxford’s Dan Hicks has become perhaps the loudest voice of those scolding the British Museum to change their ways. This position is possible in part because his museum, the Pitt Rivers, recently declared it will work to return the nearly 100 Benin objects in its collection. And how many Benin objects does the British Museum own? That, too, is hard to say.

HICKS: We still don’t know how many objects are in the British Museum from 1897, and all these other institutions don’t have inventories, because of years of underfunding and lack of investment. So many of these are hidden away in the storerooms. This is a story about what’s in the storerooms, not about what’s on display.

SAVOY: In Paris, we have 69,000 objects from Africa in the Musee du quai Branly. And only 1,000 on display. So 68,000 are unvisible. That’s a scandal. And the question is why? Why? No museum in Europe is able to explain why it is so important to have all this accumulation of African art in the basement.

Since the British Museum isn’t talking, I asked Dan Hicks to summarize the best argument they might make in favor of not repatriating their Benin Bronzes.

HICKS: It’s the “what if,” you know? It’s the “what if?” If you give back the Benin Bronzes, they’ll be sold on the open market. If you give back the Benin Bronzes, there’ll be a war, and they’ll be damaged by bombs. If you give back the Benin Bronzes, they’re not going to care for these objects well enough. There won’t be inventories done. In reality, all those things that those myths say might happen if they’re given back, every one of them has happened to the Benin Bronzes here in the U.K. Even the British Museum has sold off objects that were taken in 1897. Okay, there might be a war one day in Nigeria. In the Second World War, Hull Museum and also Liverpool Museum were bombed in the Blitz. And there were Benin Bronzes that were burst into fragments by Nazi bombs. So all those things that the civil servants invented might happen if you return them actually did happen, but they happened here in the U.K. 

When you listen to people like Dan Hicks and Bénédicte Savoy and, earlier, Matthew Bogdanos, you may get the sense that repatriating looted art is a fairly simple matter. Until, that is, you ask a couple basic questions, like: to whom, exactly, are these pieces being returned? And: what, exactly, will become of them? Here, again, is David Frum, author of the Atlantic article “Who Benefits When Western Museums Return Looted Art?”

FRUM: When this issue really erupted in 2020, I was caught off guard by some of the simplicities that were being propounded, and I went to Nigeria, a place I’d never visited, in order to do some reporting, to reveal some of the real complexities that people need to think about if they’re going to think about this issue as a serious issue. 

Frum grew up in Toronto, where his parents were avid collectors of African art. Much of their collection is now in the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto.

FRUM: And I spent a lot of my life in and around the collecting world, although I am, myself, not at all a collector.

And why does he think the repatriation of Benin Bronzes is more complex than some people say?

FRUM: They say, “Well, give it back to Nigeria.” And the problem is, what is Nigeria? Because what I document in the article is that there are at least three major claimants inside Nigeria to these artworks. There are some minor ones, too, but there are three big ones. And you can’t toss it into the middle and say, “Okay, go scramble.” 

Those major claimants are: a proposed Museum of West African Art in Edo state; the National Commission for Museums and Monuments; and the current Oba of Benin City, Ewuare II, who is a descendant of the Oba who was exiled by the British in 1897.

FRUM: And so when you choose one of those three claimants, you are making a moral decision. You have to accept it and you have to bear it. So, the first claimant to the Nigerian pieces — and this is the idea that got the most excitement and really revived this in the West — was this proposal for a public-private partnership of state-of-the-art, modern museum with integrity and an independent board that was proposed by the governor of the state, although he himself would not be directly involved. Really impressive people — Nigerian business leaders, some international people —and they would run the museum. It’s had a variety of names, but it would be an independent museum of West African Art in Edo State in what is now Benin City.

This is the future museum that European donors have been contributing to. It would be built on the historic site of the Kingdom of Benin.

FRUM: If you’ve been following the story and you’ve seen pictures in the papers, drawing of a beautiful-looking, modern building, that’s the project you’ve read about. It’s going to be just what a museum should be. And one of the things I described in the article is how that dream met Nigerian reality and was destroyed by Nigerian reality. 

That reality, says Frum, is a conflict between Edo State and the current Oba of Benin.

FRUM: He doesn’t have political power, but he has enormous spiritual and religious authority within his kingdom. And he says, “These pieces belong to my family, and I want them returned to me, and I have an idea for a royal museum which I will own and control.”

Frum writes of a long-standing feud between the Oba and the current governor of Edo State; their families are historic rivals, dating back to around the time of the British punitive expedition. So Frum thinks the museum project is doomed to fail.

FRUM: I mean, I hope it does not fail, because I think it’s a beautiful thing, and I really admire the people who are involved in it. But major projects like this that are associated with an individual governor in a Nigerian state tend not to outlast that governor. Governor Obaseki’s time is limited, and there’s no indication that his successor is going to be interested in this. And he also is fighting against the Oba of Benin. And everyone I spoke to — and I spoke to a wide variety of people, from many different walks of life, in churches and political systems — agreed if there’s a contest between the governor and the Oba, the Oba is going to win.

As of now, the Edo Museum project is still moving forward. There’s an archeological dig underway to look for remnants of the Benin Kingdom. And the museum’s director, Ore Disu, told us by email that construction has begun on a collections and research center that will provide, quote, “grade-A facilities to host and care for artifacts and contemporary artworks.” But: just recently, the Nigerian government, by way of a presidential decree, announced that “all artifacts must be delivered to the Oba of Benin.” It has since been reported that 23 Benin objects that Germany had repatriated to Nigeria have been transferred to the Oba’s collection.

FRUM: I personally don’t believe that the artwork that is returned to Benin will be on public display in our lifetimes. And maybe never. I don’t think the Nigerians have any workable plan to display the Benin art that comes back to them in the next years. 

DUBNER: So where will it go?

FRUM: I think it’ll end up in the possession of the federal government of Nigeria. The Nigerian state has chronic fiscal problems. The Nigerian state remains, as — you know, not maybe as corrupt as it was when oil prices were higher, but still a pretty corrupt state. I don’t believe that museum is ever going to be built. So I think what will tend to happen with art that is returned to Nigeria is that some of it will end up as the private property of the Oba, especially some of the earlier, more attention-getting pieces. And then if the flows continue, they will end up in crates somewhere in a basement in Abuja. And maybe they will be safe, and maybe they won’t be, but I don’t think they will ever be displayed. 

Frum points to another complicating factor that the European proponents of repatriation don’t talk about.

FRUM: The Benin art is not innocent. The Benin art is itself a monument to guilt. We call it the Benin Bronzes, but they’re not actually made of bronze in most cases. Almost all of them are made of brass. So the way they got the brass was they traded for it. What did they trade? Well, Benin grew a particular form of pepper that was very popular with Europeans in the 1400s and 1500s. And they made textiles. They exported some ivory, but they especially exported slaves that they had captured and that they used to build the wealth and power of their kingdom. They sold them to the Portuguese, who then trafficked these people to giant sugar plantations. The Benin kings were slave sellers. That’s how they got the brass that they turned into art. So there’s no innocence here. The story of humanity until we reach the modern age, where we can substitute knowledge for human labor and can make wealth out of the air, is one of tremendous oppression of most people. And that’s true for every power holder who had the wherewithal to command art. So we can’t reinvent innocence. We all have to accept history as it is, and then we have to, starting now, make our moral decisions based on the choices that are actually available to us.

And Frum thinks that in their rush to undo the sins of the 19th century, today’s repatriation advocates haven’t thought through all the implications.

FRUM: Look, I think a lot of people want to do good. That’s a very laudable and wonderful impulse. The danger is, as you do good, do you catch that little glimpse of yourself in the mirror and think, “Boy, I look good when I’m doing good.” And the moment that thought enters your brain, the whole enterprise becomes a little different. That’s what I worry about. Look, if you possess valuable artifacts, or if you control valuable artifacts, you have a form of power. And power can never be exercised with perfect innocence in this guilty world. So you must use your power responsibly, knowing everything has a tragic story. 

DUBNER: If you were advising the British Museum on this issue, what would you say? 

FRUM: I would advise them, this is not a great moment to make this decision. This may be a decision for your successor. When you have an object that is 500 years old, I think one of the questions you need to ask yourself is, “Why do I need to make a decision today?” This object will be here 50 years, 100 years from now. If I don’t see a good answer today, I can have confidence that my children or grandchildren, they may see a good answer tomorrow. So you don’t choose a bad answer because you have to hurry, hurry, hurry to dispose of this 500-year-old object. Sometimes you say, “Let’s just wait until there is a good answer.” 

DUBNER: Now to that argument, a counter argument could be — and I’ve heard this counterargument from pro-repatriation people — is that, “So what? It doesn’t matter. These are stolen goods and the very least you can do is return them to someone related to, or someone affiliated with, the survivors of those from whom they were stolen.”

FRUM: Yeah, I hear that argument a lot, too. And it’s associated with, above all, a curator named Daniel Hicks, who works at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England. So it doesn’t matter, as you say, just give it back. Who cares what happens to it. Well, then, why not burn it? If the job is to purify yourself by getting rid of the art, put it in a pit, melt it. Or why not sell it to a Russian oligarch and use the money to fund British schools or British healthcare services? If the goal is deaccession, there are a lot of ways of deaccessioning it. You cannot abdicate your responsibility. You inherited this thing, whatever its provenance. Art lasts a long time; the great pieces of Benin are mostly made between about 1450 and 1650. They’ve outlived people, kingdoms, civilizations. And they come with their own obligations of continuity with whoever happens to own them in any given particular moment. 

EHIKHAMENOR: When the British took these works in 1897, and they brought them to Britain, I don’t think they right away knew exactly what they were going to do.

Victor Ehikhamenor again:

EHIKHAMENOR: This is 125 years of history that people want us to sort overnight. There was an entire British government at the time took an ax to a particular kingdom. Now that we are trying to rectify that history, I think there would be some elbowing and pushing. I don’t particularly see that as a problem. I mean, corruption in government is not peculiar to the Nigerian government. So I think that, yes, there have been issues of where is the work going to go? Is it going to go to the palace? Is it going to go to government of Nigeria? You have to realize when this thing happened, there was no Nigeria — 1897, there was no Nigeria. It was just Benin Kingdom. There was no Edo State. It was just Benin Kingdom. I think that the world or whoever the critics are need to give a little bit of room because we just started having these works back. We have been asking for works to be restituted over decades now. And suddenly they woke up, some of the institutions woke up and said okay, we are ready. Let’s go. And yes, now that they have agreed that they are going to return this work, I think that people need to give us a little bit of space to decide how we want to structure these things on our own end.

Coming up: what did Ehikhamenor think when he first saw the Benin bronzes in captivity in the British Museum? And: we go see the bronzes ourselves — or at least try to.

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EHIKHAMENOR: I would say I started making art quite early, as far back as I was like four years old. 

That, again, is the Nigerian artist Victor Ehikhamenor.

EHIKHAMENOR: I have good memory of drawing in sand and drawing on the walls in my grandfather’s very expansive compound. Also I grew up in a home that has one of the earliest photographers in that part of the country. My uncle, who is 90 years old, is a photographer that studied at the Institute of Photography in New York in the early ‘60s. I realized that for you to create images and have people reflect upon what they are seeing was quite powerful. So I never stopped.

Today, Ehikhamenor splits his time between Lagos, Nigeria, and the Washington, D.C., area.

EHIKHAMENOR: I still remember that day very clearly when I first visited the British Museum, which was in 2017. I was preparing for an exhibition, a solo exhibition in London, called “In the Kingdom of this World.” I got in there. You understand now, I was emotionally charged to see these works. It’s not like I have not seen some of the bronze heads before, maybe in books and stuff like that.

The British Museum’s Benin Bronzes are situated in a basement wing along with the rest of the African collection. Many of the objects had a ceremonial or religious purpose — funerary masks, for instance.

EHIKHAMENOR: A funerary mask is supposed to be buried with somebody that is dead. Why are you having it in your museum? Why would I go and preserve it if that is what it was meant for? Who told you it was supposed to be behind glasses and be treated? It’s a funerary mask.

There are also brass plaques that once adorned the pillars of the Oba’s palace. Because Benin had no written language, the plaques were one of the chief repositories of the kingdom’s history.

EHIKHAMENOR: They told stories like storybooks. The way a graphic designer will illustrate a storybook is the way a Benin Bronze maker would illustrate an entire story. 

Before the British raid, there were over 1,000 plaques, spanning hundreds of years of history. The British Museum owns nearly 200 of them.

EHIKHAMENOR: So when you’re looking at some of these plaques, they are disjointed, because it’s like taking William Shakespeare’s Macbeth or Hamlet. So you got to first act, you tear the page off. Then you go to the last act of Hamlet, and you tear it off, then you paste it on the wall and call it William Shakespeare. So if somebody is reading it, yes, you can read one piece — I mean, the sentences are nice, the phrases are great, you can quote from them. But it’s not the entire story. Until you put the entire Macbeth on the wall, then you would understand the story and the magnitude of what has been done to a book like Macbeth. And you know, after a while, I just got really emotional about looking at them all strung up there just like being art for art’s sake, which they were not, they have never been. 

The plaques were also meant to memorialize how certain rituals were performed. 

EHIKHAMENOR: Recently, the Queen of England passed on and we saw the entire ceremony. They are referencing a book for what we are seeing play out on T.V. Nothing was just done at random, right? Everything was documented, so they can reference it. The grandchildren will wear black on certain days. People will visit. So we had that documentation in our plaques on how things would be done in that same way. Then some foreigners came and completely just yanked that whole history book and all of those things off the walls and then begin to string them together like they are beads bought in a cheap shop in Vegas.

Having learned what we’d learned thus far about the Benin Bronzes — their meaning, their history, the punitive expedition that scattered them around the globe and the somewhat harried movement now to repair the past — we thought it was time to go to the British Museum to visit them for ourselves. So we booked a flight for London. Dan Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums, agreed to meet us there and give a proper tour of the Benin Bronzes. It was a damp and chilly Sunday morning, and we queued up with Hicks to go inside. I told Hicks that we’d tried many times to interview a British Museum official about the controversy over the Benin Bronzes and the many other pieces in their collection that are considered “contested objects.”

HICKS: It’s absolutely one of the defining features of what the British Museum is in the eyes of the public these days. It’s the jokes that won’t go away. “Why do they call it the British Museum if everything in it is stolen from other countries? When are they going to give it all back?” It’s really affecting the British Museum as a brand. In any other sector, if your brand was being so dominated by one issue that you were failing to address, you would want to do something about it other than just keep your head in the sand. 

DUBNER: That leads to, I guess, an obvious question: Why have they not? 

HICKS: The playbook from 30 years ago is still very much the one being used by the press offices of our national museums — “we’re going to tough this one out, we’re not going to feed the media on this issue, we’ll keep quiet. We’ll occasionally say very small things that changes the subject. We’ll talk about the Parthenon Marbles every time someone talks about the Benin Bronzes. We’ll talk about Easter Island any time someone raises the Parthenon Marbles, and so on.”

The queue moved quickly, and we got up near the entrance. As we were about to pass through the main gate, a security guard approached. He did not like the look of our microphones.

MUSEUM STAFF: Anything like this is an absolute flat no. So we really need you to go to the press office for stuff like this.

We told him what we were doing, that we’d been trying for months to arrange a visit and/or an interview with the British Museum, but that we couldn’t even get our calls returned. So instead, we brought this nice professor with us to give a tour.

MUSEUM STAFF: Sorry, you recording me right now? 


MUSEUM STAFF: Right. You didn’t tell me that, sir. I’m going to have to ask you to stop, please. Okay? 

PRODUCER: Alright. Yeah.

MUSEUM STAFF: Why — why are you doing that? 

So, our recording equipment was taken from us; we were allowed to enter the museum without it; we would just have to record Dan Hicks’s tour of the Benin Bronzes on a couple of iPhones.

HICKS: We’re going to go down into the Sainsbury galleries, into the basement. I mean, they are not being displayed in the same way as, let’s say, objects from ancient Egypt are. These African objects that we’re going to be seeing are really controversial, you know, hidden away in the basement. Oh my God, look at this. Gallery closed. 

DUBNER: Hmm. They knew we were coming. 

HICKS: They knew we were coming, didn’t they?

DUBNER: “Room 25, Africa.” All of Africa is down there, is it not? 

HICKS: It is. It is.

DUBNER: Closed today. Ah, but to be fair, the museum apologizes for any inconvenience.

We asked a guard why the African gallery was closed. He said he didn’t know. There was a sign announcing that a tour of the gallery would be starting soon, led by a volunteer; so we waited outside the roped-off entrance. We got to chatting with a visitor from Scotland named Shirley Thomson, who had come to the British Museum, with her husband Ian, specifically to see the Benin Bronzes.

Shirley THOMSON: Came on Friday and it was closed. We came today, and it’s closed again.

DUBNER: So you came just to see the Benin Bronzes. Why? I’m just curious. 

THOMSON: Because I had never heard of them. And I’ve just started doing a university course and then read about them. The fact that I think in Europe, we’ve got more in storage in Europe than the people have back. It blew my mind.

DUBNER: Yeah. Now what do you think of it being returned?

THOMSON: Oh, yeah. Absolutely. I mean, of course. I didn’t even know we had it.

Ian THOMSON: Even though we stole it.

In case you didn’t catch that, Ian said “even though we stole it.” As we were chatting with the Thomsons, the sign announcing the upcoming tour of the African gallery had been swapped out.

HICKS: It turns out that the tour is canceled.

DUBNER: When did that get changed?

Well, that was anticlimactic, wasn’t it? We never were able to see the British Museum’s massive collection of Benin Bronzes. But, next time, we find another museum that’s a bit more cooperative.

Patricia ALLAN: Let’s just hope there’s nobody from our comms team spying on me. 

We’ll also hear from the Secretary of the Smithsonian, which has already returned its Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. And: we still haven’t given up on the British Museum.

DUBNER: Hello, how do you do? Would love to go to Africa with you. 

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Freakonomics Radio is produced by Stitcher and Renbud Radio. This episode was produced by Morgan Levey and mixed by Greg Rippin, with help from Jeremy Johnston; we had help in London from Rob Double and London Broadcast Studio, and from Zack Lapinski. Our staff also includes Ryan Kelley, Katherine Moncure, Alina Kulman, Rebecca Lee Douglas, Julie Kanfer, Sarah Lilley, Eleanor Osborne, Jasmin Klinger, Daria Klenert, Emma Tyrrell, Lyric Bowditch, and Elsa Hernandez. The Freakonomics Radio Network’s executive team is Neal CarruthGabriel Roth, and Stephen Dubner. Our theme song is “Mr. Fortune,” by the Hitchhikers; all the other music was composed by Luis Guerra.

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  • Matthew Bogdanos, assistant district attorney in the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office and chief of the Antiquities Trafficking Unit.
  • Victor Ehikhamenor, Nigerian writer and artist.
  • David Frum, staff writer at The Atlantic.
  • Dan Hicks, professor of contemporary archaeology at the University of Oxford and curator of world archaeology at the Pitt Rivers Museum.
  • Bénédicte Savoy, professor of art history at the Technical University in Berlin.



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