Sunday, December 10, 2017

Symbolism and Provenance of a Benin Copper Alloy Plaque at the Baltimore Museum of Art

BMA 1958.8


         Kept in storage at the Baltimore Museum of Art, an artwork that has made a long journey sits carefully wrapped in a box. At one time, it shone brightly in the West African sun on the veranda posts of the palace of the Oba of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria. The Plaque with Figure of a Python provides us with a direct connection to that time and place, but some questions remain about its provenance.


A similar plaque at the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin
The plaque was one of hundreds that decorated the walls and pillars of the palace of Oba Esigie in the 16th century.  Many plaques almost identical to the one at the BMA are in collections around the world. The python, a dangerous and liminal creature, was symbolically connected to the oba. It was a common motif decorating his palace and religious accoutrements. The iconographic connection between the python and the oba was epitomized by a large brass python that descended the main turret of the palace. The python and other amphibious animals were considered to be messengers of the sea god Olokun. These amphibious creatures were bearers of Olokun’s bounty. The oba’s analogous relationship to Olokun gave him privileged access to the largesse of his undersea counterpart. The material of the plaque, copper alloy, is also symbolically associated with the oba. As copper alloy does not decay or rust, it is considered a metaphor of divine kingship. The raw materials for the plaque were melted down manillas, a copper alloy bracelet currency used on the West African coast by European traders beginning in the 16th century.

A copper alloy ritual vessel with a python motif

The Plaque with Figure of a Python was bought by Alan Wurtzburger through J.J. Klejman and donated in 1958 to the Baltimore Museum of Art (BMA). The Wurtzburger family was of German origin and began selling men’s clothing from a store on Gay Street after the Civil War. They later expanded their business into event hall rental. Alan Wurtzburger was born in Baltimore in 1900 and grew up in the Riviera apartments on Druid Park Lake Drive overlooking the reservoir. He worked as a salesman in his family’s shirt store, moving into commercial real estate as an adult.
Alan and his wife, Janet, were wealthy philanthropists and major donors to the BMA. The Wurtzburgers lived at a large estate named "Timberlane" in Pikesville and participated in house tours and other social events. They regularly hosted members of the BMA and the wider public to view their indoor and outdoor art collections. The Wurtzburgers developed a close relationship with Gertrude Rosenthal, a curator at the BMA. Rosenthal acquired the Cone collection for the BMA and advised the Wurtzburgers on their collection. An encyclopedic collection of African art was a logical complement to the modernists in the Cone collection due to the strong formal affinities between the two.
The plaque was acquired during a mania for so-called Primitive art that perhaps peaked with the disappearance of Michael Rockefeller in 1961 and began to come to a close with the 1970 UNESCO agreement on cultural property. Wurtzburger had begun to collect African art in 1951 and 1952. A 1954 Baltimore Sun article written about the upcoming exhibition of the Wurtzburger’s collection of African art at the BMA states that while traveling in central Africa, Alan “became completely fascinated with the tribal sculpture of the natives and was suddenly overcome with an urge to possess some of it.”
However, none of the Wurtzburgers’ collection was acquired on their trip to Africa. “Mr. Wurtzburger’s actual acquiring began in London where a museum authority offered assistance in dredging up desired pieces. Since that time he has been in constant touch with the the dependable and authoritative dealers in England, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and New York who have been able to produce rare items.” The Wurtzburgers donated their collection of African art, including a Benin commemorative head, to the BMA in 1954. In 1958, a new gallery named after them was opened to display their collections of Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art alongside their African works in a special “Primitive” wing of the museum.
a 1954 Baltimore Sun article describing the Wurtzburgers' collection of African art

           In 2002 the British journalist and art historian Martin Bailey declassified documents that show that the British Museum began de-accessioning, trading, and selling off Benin artworks they considered duplicates beginning in 1951. Originally they worked with a London dealer, but in 1952 “three bronzes, valued at £450, were given to New York dealer J.J. Klejman in partial exchange for an important Benin horseman… In 1958 a [British Museum] bronze was sold to Klejman for £450.”
            John J. Klejman owned a successful and elegant gallery on Madison Avenue at the corner of 76th street on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. He and his wife Halina worked there diligently six days a week according to their daughter Susanne. Klejman counted Nelson A. Rockefeller, the Menils, and Alistair Bradley Martin among his clients. Klejman also loaned antiquities with a marine theme to the luxurious Carlyle Hotel across the street to decorate the rooms of John F. Kennedy who stayed there whenever he visited the city. In 1964, Jacqueline Kennedy said her husband “used to go into Klejman, opposite Parke-Bernet in New York—opposite the Carlyle, whenever he was there—and look, and he started to buy all the Greek sculpture that you see in this room—all the Egyptian sculpture. And then he really knew his field.”
Thomas Hoving, later the director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, described being led by Klejman “to his cellar where on a pedestal, surrounded by floodlights, was a life-sized Greek bronze of a handsome young athlete dating to the 4th century B. C. It had clearly been found in the sea since some barnacles still clung to its surface.”
In a recent Sotheby’s catalogue for the sale of an estate that contained several pieces acquired at Klejman Gallery, the gallerist is described “as a historical bridge between the European art world as it existed before the Second World War and the budding art market in prosperous post-war America.” Klejman was first exposed to African art while studying at the Sorbonne. He returned to his native Poland and began selling antiquities, particularly European decorative art.
J.J. Klejman

This came to a halt with the German invasion of Poland in 1939. Klejman, along with Halina and Susanne and other relatives, was relocated to the Warsaw Ghetto. Susanne describes her father saving and smuggling out drawings made in the ghetto by a dead artist friend. The Klejmans smuggled Susanne out of the ghetto as conditions worsened and the genocidal intentions of the Nazis became clear. Halina escaped from her labor detail outside the walls as she and her husband had agreed either one should do if the opportunity arose. Klejman remained in the ghetto until the Uprising, escaping through the sewers. He hid out in and around Warsaw for the duration of the war. Klejman was reunited with Halina and Susanne in 1945, but they were forced to leave Poland due to persistent and violent anti-semitism. They eventually emigrated to New York in 1950 after living in Sweden and Mexico. African art was relatively inexpensive during this period, and it became one of the Klejmans’ specialties as they began a new antiquities dealership in their adopted country.
Described by Hoving as one his “favorite dealer-smugglers,” Klejman eventually had access to antiquities of extreme quality and rarity from around the world. In the 1960s the pair collaborated on a $1.5 million deal that saw the infamous “Lydian Horde” into the Met collection, only to be later repatriated to Turkey after a court battle in the early 1990s. The fallout from this deal, along with the 1970 UNESCO agreement on cultural property and advancing Alzheimer’s eventually forced Klejman to retire.
The plaque as it was published by Pitt Rivers in 1900
It is unclear exactly how Klejman acquired the plaque he sold to Wurtzburger. He seems to have been cagey about provenance, particularly with works from Africa. A photogravure of the plaque was published by the British anthropologist Pitt Rivers in 1900. Unfortunately, Pitt Rivers did not provide any repository or provenance information about the pieces he published. We can speculate that the plaque was located in the United Kingdom at this time. The Pitt Rivers museums did not begin de-accessioning works until the 1960s, so we can also speculate that the plaque at the BMA did not come from their collection. Many Benin pieces entered private, government, and museum collections in Britain in the immediate aftermath of the Punitive Expedition of 1897. Some of these remained in the private collections of the officers of the expedition, and could have emerged on the secondary market to be snatched up by astute dealers like Klejman. It is also possible that the plaque was acquired by Klejman from the British Museum when it was de-accessioning Benin pieces in the 1950s.
British officers pose with looted artwork in 1897. A large copper alloy python is visible descending the palace roof behind them.


Regardless of how Klejman came into possession of the plaque, like all of the Benin copper alloy plaques in museums around the world, the Plaque with Figure of a Python was looted by the British military during the violent climax of the Punitive Expedition of 1897. The British troops found the plaques unhung in a storage area. One of the naval officers commanding the expedition described finding the plaques “buried in the dirt of ages… suggestive of almost Egyptian design, but of really superb casting. Castings of wonderful delicacy of detail…” The removal of the plaques from the walls and pillars of the palace was the result of a political change within the Benin empire many years prior. The original context of the stored plaques was not recorded by the troops who removed them. The majority of the artwork looted from Benin was auctioned off by the Admiralty to defray the costs of the expedition, although the upper echelon officers involved kept the highest quality pieces for themselves. It remains unclear what happened to the plaque after its removal from Benin City. Today, it has the potential to be a bold curatorial choice for the BMA or another museum. Questions about repatriation to Nigeria remain open.

Monday, April 10, 2017

UPDATE: A Benin Copper Alloy Plaque at the Walters Art Museum


In the Chamber of Wonders of the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, a very special work of sub-Saharan African art may be found: a Benin copper alloy plaque (Walters IL.2005.3 or Smithsonian E428177-0). The empire of Benin was an independent military and economic power on the West African coast up until the very end of the 19th century. The placement of the plaque in between ivory sculptures from East Asia seems fitting. Portuguese sailing in caravels were the first Europeans to make direct contact with Benin in the late 1400s, connecting them to a global mercantile network.
 It is tempting to imagine the copper and brass bracelet currency known as manillas that were melted down to cast the plaque being exchanged for the tusks that became the objects flanking it at the bustling river port of Gwato. Ivory was a principal export for Benin, along with pepper and enslaved people. Benin was ruled by hereditary kings of fluctuating authority known as obas. The obas were not only political and military leaders, but a living point of contact between the material and spiritual worlds.


The Benin plaques first appear in the Western historical record in the Dutch scholar Olfert Dapper’s 1668 book, “Description of Africa.” They were described as being hung vertically on the veranda posts of the oba’s palace complex. More than 900 of these plaques are now in collections around the world. In Benin, copper alloys were valued for their red color and their reflective qualities, which were believed to deflect negative energy and provide glimpses of the spirit world. It can also be speculated that these plaques functioned mnemonically with oral histories to create narrative interpretations. The plaques are associated by scholars with the reign of Oba Esigie in the 16th century, considered to be a period of economic, political, and artistic florescence.

The plaques reemerged into western consciousness after the Benin Punitive Expedition of 1897. This expedition was the final phase of a conflict between Benin and the British Empire over control of the lucrative palm kernel and palm oil market. They were discovered unhung in a storage area by a British naval force in the process of looting and ultimately destroying the palace complex. Most of the copper alloy and ivory artworks found in the palace were removed and auctioned off by the Royal Navy to defray the costs of the military operation. Some were kept as personal booty by the officers and men who participated in the operation. These objects are now in museums and private collections around the world.

 The path from this auction to the collection of the uranium magnate Joseph Hirshhorn is unclear. During most of the 20th century, provenance records were not generally kept for African artworks, which were often categorized as ethnological specimens rather than fine art. Hirshhorn began collecting Benin art in 1957, eventually amassing an important collection. Hirshhorn is better known as a collector of modern and postmodern art, but the deep influence of African art on European modernism may provide a link between these two collecting interests. All of Hirshhorn’s Benin bronzes were bequeathed to the Smithsonian along with the rest of his art collection. This donation was the genesis of the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden.  In 1985, a Smithsonian reorganization removed non-Western art from the collection of Hirshhorn Museum and sculpture garden. Most of the Benin pieces went to the National Museum of African Art. However, the Walters plaque became part of the collection of the ethnology division of the Smithsonian Department of Anthropology. It was loaned to the Walters in 2005.


The figures in Benin plaques wear a rich panoply commensurate with their rank in the complex hierarchy of the Benin court. An iconographic analysis of the costume of the figure in the Walters plaque may provide some insight into the role of this individual in the life of the Benin Empire. Starting from the head we can see a cap made of tubular beads of precious coral (corallium rubrum) and a high collar also made of coral. Fiery red coral beads carried major significance in Benin society, all being considered the property of the oba and distributed to high-ranking individuals at his discretion. These beads were riginally imported from the Mediterranean by the Portuguese. For the Bini coral had a mythological connection to the superhuman Oba Ewuare's victory over his otherworldy counterpart, the numinous sea god Olokun. Coral caps are sometimes inherited by hereditary nobles. The cap on the individual on the Walters plaque is topped by a feather, and long braids of hair terminating in large agate beads flow from underneath it. The coral collar or odigba that completely covers the neck and the mouth is of special note, being exclusively associated with royalty. On the chest we can see the three vertical lines of the iwu or scarification distinct to the Bini. The hands are in a ritual pose that is repeated across multiple artworks. At the wrists, we can see long bracelets, perhaps made of ivory or copper alloy. These are indicators of rank, not a sartorial choice. At the waist, we can see a kilt or wrapper made of overlapping and richly-patterned fabrics. We can also see a swag of coral beads. This swag of beads, like the odigba, is associated exclusively with royalty. Below this, we can see elaborate anklets. Like the bracelets, they were a regulated indicator of high status.

Using a technique pioneered by the American scholar Barbara Winston Blackmun, we can search other plaques and carved ivories for a recurrence of the figure and other iconographic clues. An example of a plaque with a very similar figure can be seen in a photograph belonging to the British Museum (Af,A60.70). In this photograph, we can seem an almost iconographically identical figure, down to the position of the hands. The key differences are beads on the forehead and temple, strands of beads around the neck, and the absence of the coral swag at the waist. Beads had major political significance in Benin, and the possession of certain beads were considered necessary for the legitimate exercise of kingship. In this photograph we can also see subsidiary symbols, in this case the heads of four crocodiles. Crocodiles were associated with waterways, merchants, and the sea god Olokun, and therefore the oba. Like the oba, crocodiles are liminal creatures, moving between two worlds.

In the collection of the British Museum there is also a plaque (Af1898,0115.38) that is very different but shares some iconographic elements with the Walters plaque. This plaque shows a group of figures, with the central figure in hierarchical scale. This figure has been identified by Blackmun as Oba Esigie. We can see him surrounded by attendants and carrying the ritual wand. We can also see him in what Blackmun identifies as a ritual pose, with one hand extended. This may be a representation of the ritual pose in high relief as opposed to the bas relief of the Walters plaque and similar examples. There are also formal similarities between the legs of the Walters figure and the oba in the British Museum group plaque. We can see a similar pattern on the wrappers of both figures. Is it perhaps an abstracted heads of Portuguese motif? The similarity between the two patterns is so striking that we may think we perceive the hand of an individual artist working the the soft beeswax molded over the clay core, although the brasses were produced by a guild.


Another plaque that contains an iconographically similar figure is Ethnologisches Museum III C 8364. In this example, the only difference is that the sculptor has included the supraorbital iwu marks. This plaque also contains subsidiary symbols, in this case two Portuguese. Unusually, these two Portuguese carry special wands for warding off negative spiritual forces and reflective mirror charms. Like crocodiles, the Portuguese were considered liminal or amphibious messengers from Olokun. They were also symbolic of wealth and danger.

 Finally, we can compare the Walters plaque with a figure on a carved tusk (Cleveland Museum of Art 68.284) also identified as Oba Esigie by Barbara Blackmun. In this case, the figure is flanked by a Bini attendant carrying a cylindrical leopard skin box known as an ekpokin, and a Portuguese soldier stroking his beard. Esigie is particularly associated with the Portuguese. He studied in the Portuguese school established in Benin by his father Ozolua, and could speak and read Portuguese. He was even baptized. The key differences between the figure of Esigie on the Cleveland tusk and the figure shown on the Walters plaque are the kingly beads on the pate and temples of the coral cap and the strands of beads hanging on the chest and the wand in the right hand. Does the figure on the Walters plaque perhaps represent Oba Esigie as a young prince before he recovered the accursed beads of kingship from the site of his vanquished half-brother’s suicide?


UPDATE 12/6/2017:
According to Cleveland State art historian Kathy Curnow, the figure on the Walters plaque is not Esigie. "No, it's likely not Esigie--not enough jewelry. It portrays a chief, as evidenced by his high beaded collar (odigba) and headband with eagle feather (udahae). His bracelets are brass, and he's wearing beaded anklets as well. He's not one of the war chiefs, which probably means he's a member of the Eghaevbo n'Ogbe (so-called "palace chiefs"). It's not really possible to identify him more specifically than that, because his dress provides no further clues (not all chiefs had the privilege of wearing the full odigba, though, so he was fairly high-ranking. He is wearing two textiles as a wrapper, which shows a sense of style as well)."