Link Between Benin Bronzes and Slave Trade Snarls Transfers to Nigeria

Posted on: February 15, 2023 by

One of the 29 Benin Bronzes returned by the Smithsonian to Nigeria

What connection exists between the Transatlantic Slave Trade and Benin Bronzes? This is the query that now entangles the seemingly straightforward return of Benin Bronzes to their original home of modern-day Edo State in southern Nigeria. The person raising this compelling point, Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, filed a class action suit and moved for emergency action in late 2022 to pause the Smithsonian Institution’s scheduled transfer of 29 Bronzes to Nigeria. Despite the court’s denial of the emergency relief sought and the Smithsonian’s swift shipment of the Bronzes to the West African country, the suit against “the world’s largest museum, education and research complex” continues.

Additionally, Farmer-Paellmann also is in dialogue with other U.S. institutions that hold Bronzes and is pursuing a U.K. petition related to British institutions with Bronzes in their collections, the goal being to keep certain Bronzes from being transferred back to Nigeria. Here’s why…

The Slave Trade, Manillas and Benin Bronzes

Benin Bronzes are considered “highly charged symbols of injustice” in light of their forced removal from the Kingdom of Benin by the British in 1897. For Farmer-Paellmann, the Bronzes symbolize injustice for a very different reason.

Describing Benin officials as “the Nazis” for her and her ancestors [see 1, Warfare of Art and Law podcast], Farmer-Paellmann calls for a focus on how Bronzes in the 16th to 19th Centuries were created – with C-shaped metal ingot called manillas that the Benin Kingdom is said to have received for sale of fellow Africans; the metals from this bracelet-shaped currency are believed to have been melted down and cast into various objects from ceremonial heads to figurines [2, see ‘Declaration’].

Farmer-Paellmann, who traces her lineage to ancestors traded at the notorious American slave port of Charleston, SC, describes the Kingdom of Benin as “a major exporter of captives” in the 16th and late 17th Century with a peak in the 18th Century that resulted in the trade of more than 100,000 individuals as slaves (‘Declaration’ at 4).

Various historians have documented manillas as the mainstay of slave trade currency in that era. In Benin and the Europeans 1485-1897, Alan Ryder documents 57 manillas as the exchange rate for males and 50 manillas for females (‘Declaration’ at 3). Dr. Ibrahima Seck, a Professor of History at Université Cheikh Anta Diop in Dakar, Senegal, affirmed “Benin Bronzes were, indeed, cast with the proceeds of the transatlantic slave trade.” (‘Declaration’ at 3-4 and Declaration Exhibit 2). Even a Smithsonian publication, “Royal Art of Benin: In the Collection of the National Museum of African Art” by Byrna Freyer, includes “excerpts that said the bronzes were made with manillas from the slave trade” (‘Declaration’ at 8-9).

The Pending Suit Against the Smithsonian

In mid-2022, the Smithsonian’s Board of Regents “resolved to deaccession and transfer 29 of its 39 Benin Bronzes to the control of descendants of Beni royalty” (‘Declaration’ at 4).

Having learned about the potential transfer, Farmer-Paellmann made attempts to negotiate with Smithsonian representatives. Part of the dialogue was with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art Director Ngaire Blankenberg who stated that “confusion was being perpetuated about the Benin Kingdom’s role in slavery” (‘Declaration’ at 10). The string of exchanges culminated with an email from Smithsonian Undersecretary for Museums and Culture Kevin Gover who confirmed the Bronzes would be “returned to the Federal Government of Nigeria through its National Commission for Museums and Monuments” under the Institution’s “ethical returns” and management policies (‘Declaration’ at 13).

Shortly thereafter, on 7 October 2022, Farmer-Paellmann and the non-profit she founded, Restitution Study Group, filed a class action suit, motion for emergency temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction against the Smithsonian [3, see ‘Complaint’].

The suit defines the putative “Class of DNA Descendants” as including “all African-Americans who are citizens of the United States and whose ancestors were also residents of what is now called Nigeria whom royal Beni traffickers kidnapped and sold to European slave traders” (‘Complaint’ at 6).

The complaint alleges the Smithsonian lacks authority to deaccession and transfer the Bronzes; would be in breach of trust to the American people who are beneficiaries of the National Collection for which the Smithsonian is trustee; would be unjustly enriching “those who engaged in all-too-common crimes against humanity, without receipt of any compensation” and would be unjustly impoverishing “those whose lives were lost and destroyed” for bronze and brass and the Benin Bronzes that were “fashioned therefrom” (‘Complaint’ at 16-20).

On 11 October 2022, the Smithsonian went forward with the transfer of the 29 Bronzes to Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments.

Three days after that transfer, the district court issued its three-page opinion and order that denied Plaintiffs all requested relief. Standing was the first unmet hurdle addressed: “even if 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.” [4, see ‘Opinion and Order’]. The court did note other viable routes for standing but found they were not advanced: “Plaintiffs might be able to establish standing based on a different injury, such as harm to an academic or aesthetic interest in the Bronzes, which might be heightened by their alleged ancestral ties, but they do not advance those arguments in any detail.” (‘Opinion and Order’ at 1, FN 1).

The Court also found that, even if standing was established, the Smithsonian was within its powers to transfer the Bronzes:

Plaintiffs’ ultra vires claim fails because the Smithsonian’s actions are not subject to judicial review under the Administrative Procedure Act. See Dong v. Smithsonian Inst., 125 F.3d 877, 883 (D.C. Cir. 1997). In any event, the authorizing statute of the Smithsonian’s Museum of African Art, where the Bronzes are held, explicitly empowers its Board to, among other things, “transfer” works in its collection. Accordingly, 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 (‘Opinion and Order’ at 2).

Plaintiffs’ dual breach of trust claims were also dismissed under a ruling that “only the United States holds legal title to the Smithsonian collection as its trustee”, and the unjust enrichment claims were found “not to fit the mold” as “Plaintiffs do not seek compensation for any benefit they bestowed on the Smithsonian” (‘Opinion and Order’ at 2).

One victory for Plaintiffs was the court’s decision to reserve judgment on the government’s motion to dismiss the case; the court has allowed Plaintiffs to respond “by either filing a supplemental opposition within the time allowed under the Local Rules or amending their complaint as of right.” (‘Opinion and Order’ at 3, FN 3).

The lower court’s ruling is currently on appeal before the D.C. Circuit.

Incentives for Return of Bronzes 

Despite the recent global collective consciousness that calls for repatriation of looted objects, there may be other motives beyond the benevolent in the transfer of Bronzes. The motivations of countries proactively responding to requests for Bronzes may be incentivized by economic and political factors. Regarding the 2022 Germany-Nigeria Joint Declaration, Germany’s Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock described Nigeria as a “strategic partner” from Africa,” which may suggest “certain economic incentives” behind such a Joint Declaration [5, see ‘Herman’, p. 159]. As Institute of Art and Law Director Alexander Herman has pointed out, “co-operation around restitution can very often coincide with economic and political alignment.” (‘Herman’, p. 160) It is unclear whether such motivations were at play in the Smithsonian transfer.

Other Institutions Holding Benin Bronzes 

Beyond the Smithsonian, Farmer-Paellmann indicated that she has been in communication with other U.S. institutions holding Bronzes to reach “alternative solutions” to keep the Bronzes in the States, with an agreement forthcoming from one of those entities to create  “opportunities for descendants of enslaved Africans to intern or to work with the Bronzes”; and she suggested other solutions might include agreements to allow forensic research on and “entrepreneurial opportunities” in relation to the Bronzes, which she describes as the “legacy” left to her and other descendants of Africans who were stripped of all freedom when traded for manillas (see ‘Warfare of Art and Law podcast’, ep. 91).

Farmer-Paellmann also filed a petition with the UK’s Charities Commission “to interfere” with transfers of Bronzes from U.K. institutions (see ‘Warfare of Art and Law podcast’, ep. 91). This is not surprising in light of the fact that the majority of Benin Bronzes are held in UK institutions with the British Museum holding over 900 Bronzes, making it “the single largest holder of Bronzes” (‘Herman’, p. 160).

How the History of the Benin Bronzes Will Be Written

Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture Lai Mohammed praised the Smithsonian and other institutions that recently sent Bronzes back to Nigeria for helping to write “new pages in history”. Yet, the pages of history that link the Bronzes to the shameful business of slavery – pages that have been almost completely swept under the carpet – beg for clarity: Of the hundreds of Benin Bronzes held in collections across the globe, how many were made with slave-traded manillas? What might research on the Bronzes reveal for descendants of those taken from Nigeria as slaves and stripped of their ancestral history? And to what degree was the Benin Kingdom an active participant in the enslavement of its brethren? For now, these and other such concerning inquiries will continue to swirl around the Benin Bronzes as this case sits pending on appeal.


Image credits: Smithsonian Institution, National Museum of African Art, photograph for press use, available here.


[1] Warfare of Art and Law podcast, Episode 91, “Deadria Farmer-Paellmann on the Restitution Study Group, Slavery Justice and the Benin Bronzes’ Hidden History Related to the Slave Trade”.

[2] ‘Declaration of Deadria Farmer-Paellmann in support of emergency motion for temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction’, Farmer-Paellmann, et al v. Smithsonian Institution, Case 1:22-cv-03048-CRC, ECF 2:2.

[3] ‘Complaint’, Farmer-Paellmann, et al v. Smithsonian Institution, Case 1:22-cv-03048-CRC, ECF 1.

[4] ‘Opinion and Order’ (citing Lujan v. Defenders of Wildlife, 504 U.S. 555, 560 (1992), Farmer-Paellmann, et al v. Smithsonian Institution, Case 1:22-cv-03048-CRC, ECF 10.

[5] Alexander Herman, ‘Benin Bronzes: Germany-Nigeria Declaration’, Art Antiquity and Law Journal, August 2022 Number 27, Issue 2, pp. 159-160.