US Restitution Organization Sues Smithsonian to Prevent Repatriation of Benin Bronzes

Janice K. Johnson

The New York–based Restitution Study Group (RSG) is suing the Smithsonian in an attempt to halt the repatriation to Nigeria of the so-called Benin bronzes held by the institution. At an October 11 ceremony held at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, the institution officially ceded to the National Commission for Museums and Monuments in Nigeria ownership of the twenty-nine Benin bronzes held in its collection. The objects are part of a roughly 90,000-piece trove looted by British troops in 1897 from the Republic of Benin, as Nigeria was then known.

As part of the repatriation agreement, the Smithsonian was to retain nine of the bronzes on long-term loan. Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, RSG’s founder and executive director, contends that all the objects should remain with the US institution so that the descendants of enslaved people in America have the chance to view them and to connect with their own history. Referring to the 2018 volume The Benin Monarchy, edited by Nigerian lifestyle publisher Oriiz Onuwaje, Farmer-Paellmann told The Art Newspaper, “We specially oppose the return of the 16th-to 19th-century metal bronzes because they were made with melted manilla currency [that] the Benin Kingdom was paid in exchange for our ancestors they sold to European slave traders [into the transatlantic slave trade].” Farmer-Paellmann traces her own lineage to enslaved people brought to the western nation from the Republic of Benin.

RSG had petitioned to obtain a restraining order to prevent the objects’ return. The request was denied on October 14, with the court noting that “even if [the] plaintiffs could establish that ancestral link to the bronzes—which they have not done on this record—such an attenuated connection would not give rise to the type of ‘concrete and particularized’ injury necessary for standing.” The court additionally ruled that “the Smithsonian does not appear to have acted beyond its statutory authority by reaching an agreement with Nigeria to transfer some of the Benin bronzes.”

Farmer-Paellmann contends that the lawsuit is still pending despite the denied restraining order, with RSG seeking to halt the transfer of the twenty bronzes destined for Nigeria and to reverse the surrender of what the organization casts as the “illegally transferred” nine bronzes remaining with the Smithsonian on loan.

“The judge’s order speaks for itself,” said a Smithsonian spokesperson. “The transfer of ownership has happened.”

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