In 1897, the British captured Benin City in eastern Nigeria, dethroned the Nigerian King and emptied the Palace of its treasures. Over 2,000 artefacts were shipped to England to be auctioned off in order to pay for the war against Benin. When arriving in Europe, the bronze statutes were seen as war trophies and curiosities. However, they were soon to be recognised as masterpieces of art.
Today, these Benin artefacts are spread across museums and art collections all over the world. However, this does not mean that Nigeria has none left of its regal art from Benin City. In late 1940's and throughout the 1950's, the British Colonial Administration purchased items sold in auction on behalf of Nigeria and as a result, there is today a large and representative collection in the country. When the British troops were drawing near to Benin City, many artefacts were hidden away. Some of these can now be found in the Royal Palace while others are on display in the Benin City National Museum together with archaeological materials excavated in more recent years.
This commemorative bronze head from the 17th century is virtually of life-size. The headdress depicts a hood-like crown of coral pieces tied together in a mesh pattern. In real life, a king's collar would also be made of coral pieces. When a king died, his successor would arrange for an altar to be constructed in memory of the deceased monarch where his commemorative head would be placed alongside other ritual objects. A deceased monarch was thought to be a link between the people and its ancestors with the king's spirit being able to influence the welfare and wellbeing of the living.
The Benin Collection at the Museum of Ethnography is mostly a donation from a private collector, Professor Hans Meyer in Germany (1858-1929). In 1907, Professor Meyer made a donation of 614 artefacts from around the world. In return, he was awarded the Swedish Order of the North Star by the Swedish Royal Court.