IN London on February 17, Sotheby's will sell a rediscovered 16th century Benin ivory mask – and five other rare works from the Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria – consigned by the family of a key participant in the controversial Punitive Expedition. The mask alone is estimated at £3.5m-4.5m.
Produced specifically for the king or Oba, these ivory
pendant masks are testament to Benin's golden age when the kingdom
flourished economically, politically and artistically. The face is
thought to depict Idia, the mother of the Oba Esigie (c.1504-1550),
who was granted the title Iyoba (Queen Mother) in
recognition of her help and counsel during military campaigns.
The masks were created at least in part as objects of
veneration. The much-admired, time-worn and honey-coloured surface
of Sotheby's mask attests to years of rubbing with palm oil.
Only four other ivory pendant masks of this type are known and
are in institutional collections - housed in the British Museum,
the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Linden-Museum in Stuttgart and
the Seattle Art Museum (the closest to Sotheby's example).
The mask has not been seen for more than half a century.
When Jacob Epstein encountered it in 1947 as part of a loan
exhibition at the Berkeley Galleries in London entitled Ancient
Benin, he asked the family if he could exchange it for one of
his sculptures (an offer they astutely declined). It again formed
part of an exhibition in 1951 - Traditional Sculpture from the
Colonies at the Arts Gallery of the Imperial Institute - but
its whereabouts since have remained unknown until the family
contacted Sotheby's last year.
The mask will be sold by the descendants of Lieutenant Colonel
Sir Henry Lionel Gallwey (1859-1949), who was appointed deputy
commissioner and vice-consul in the newly established Oil Rivers
Protectorate (later the Niger Coast Protectorate) in 1891.
Although it was never signed, it was the Gallwey Treaty that
became the legal basis for the British Government's controversial
Punitive Expedition of 1897, when Benin City was put to the sword
and much of the kingdom's art was destroyed looted or
Later in 1897 the booty was auctioned in Paris - the beginnings
of a long and slow European reassessment of the value of West
African art, but also the origins of a case that now parallels that
of the Elgin Marbles.
Nigeria, which includes the area of the Kingdom of Benin, bought
around 50 Benin bronzes from the British Museum between the 1950s
and 1970s, and has repeatedly called for the return of the
Gallwey (in 1913, shortly before he was appointed governor of
South Australia, he changed his name to Galway) remained in Nigeria
until 1902 and the exact circumstances of his acquisition is
unknown. He is understood to have been given a large tusk by the
Oba in 1892, but it is most likely the mask was acquired during the
turmoil of 1897.
It comes to auction together with five other Benin objects from
the same source. Treasures: Royal Benin Art will also
include a bronze sculpture of a type historically identified as
The twisted and hollowed form of this stand (estimate
£8000-12,000) suggests it served the same function as the more
familiar bronze commemorative heads, as a stand for a carved ivory
tusk on an altar created to honour a former ruler.
A tusk made for the altar of an 18th century Oba carved with
iconography repeated across many art forms in Benin (including the
well-documented bronze plaques) is also included in the February
sale estimated at £125,000-175,000.
It is unusual for material of this type to be sold by Sotheby's
in London (typically tribal art is sold in Paris), but, according
to the auctioneers, the consignor specifically requested its sale
in the UK.
By Roland Arkell