Friday, February 23, 2018

Symbolism and Iconography of a Benin Commemorative Head at the Baltimore Museum of Art

            Front and center in the Baltimore Museum of Art’s African galleries, a copper alloy commemorative head from the West African kingdom of Benin meets the gaze of entering visitors in its own vitrine. The original context of the artwork was destroyed and not recorded in 1897. Its path from what is now Nigeria to Baltimore is unclear. An idealized representation of an oba or king in full coral regalia, the commemorative head was a component of a sacred altar that served as a communication point between the living and the spirit world. Upon this altar it supported a massive elephant’s tusk covered with carved motifs and charged with dangerous spiritual force. The Benin Commemorative Head at the Baltimore Museum of Art connects visitors to classical West African art and provides insight into the formation of museum collections.
The tradition of casting copper alloy sculptures in Nigeria is at least 1000 years old. According to the Edo, this tradition was brought to Benin from the Yoruba city of Ife. Extremely naturalistic copper alloy heads were being cast in Ife in the fourteenth century. The casting of commemorative heads in Benin is said to have begun with Oba Ewuare in the fifteenth century. According to the BMA, the commemorative head donated to them in 1951 by Alan and Janet Wurtzburger was made in the 19th century during the reign of Adolo or Ovonoramwen. These commemorative heads were components of ritual altars constructed to honor the oba’s deceased father. These altars are the focus of the yearly Ugie Erha Oba festival, one of four principal festivals tied to the agricultural year.
The florescence of Benin copper alloy casting in the 15th and 16th centuries is linked to an influx of cuprous metal currency bracelets known as manillas that European merchants used along the coast to purchase ivory, pepper, and enslaved people. In the Edo cosmology, copper alloy is a sacred material associated with the color red. Copper’s reflective surface deflects spiritual attack and it does not rust or decay. Red represents combat, fire, blood, the earth, and the god Ogun. The head of the oba it represents is also considered a source of spiritual power. Each hard supports an elaborately carved tusk. Ivory is also a sacred material associated with the color white. White represents harmony, coolness, peace, the sea, and the god Olokun. According to tradition, spirit possession passes through the top of the head. The tusk serves as a vertical axis or projection linking the head to the spirit world. The tusk is also covered with mnemonic devices related to the dynastic history of the Benin kings, the living oba’s deified ancestors. The ivory carvers often choose motifs from dreams and do not draw out a design on the tusk before carving. The interpretation of these symbols is exclusive to initiated specialists and their meaning is not fixed. All of the furnishings are placed on an earthen altar whitened with kaolin within the palace complex.

                 One of these altars was photographed by the British merchant Cyril Punch in 1891. This is the only known photograph of an altar taken before the destruction of the royal palace during the British Punitive Expedition of 1897. According to the American scholar Barbara Blackmun, we cannot tell if these are the heads commissioned by the sitting monarch Oba Ovonramwen in honor of his father Adolo or an older altar. She identifies the tusks as being carved during Ovonramwen’s reign. Although the photograph does not show the complete altar, four identical commemorative heads can be seen. The BMA head may be part of a similar set. The Baltimore head stands out from the corpus for its high forehead. There are nearly identical heads that share this characteristic in the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin (III C 80201) and in at the British Museum (Af1961,09.1) in London. The London head was donated to the British Museum by the Lords of the Admiralty in 1961. The Berlin had was probably acquired at the Paris auction of the Benin artworks not taken as trophies organized by the Admiralty to defray the costs of the Punitive Expedition 1897. The Germans acquired a large collection of Benin artwork at this auction with an eye towards their own colonial ambitions in West Africa. This collection will be integrated into the new Humboldt Forum that will open at the end of 2019. A fourth head sharing this characteristic was published in the catalogue of an exhibition at the Duveen-Graham gallery New York in 1957, listed in an American private collection. A partial head identified as a failed casting at the Fowler Museum at UCLA has definite stylistic similarities to the above mentioned four.
At the top of the head we can see the empty socket that once held the carved tusk. The head is hollow as a result of the lost wax or cire perdu casting method. The void is created during the casting process by a clay core perhaps supported by an iron rod or pinned into place. Surrounding this socket is the oba’s beaded crown. The chief material of the crown is bright red precious or Balearic coral, a sign of wealth and also a form of spiritual protection. We can see two wing-like projections of coral beads at the top of the crown. These projections are said to have been introduced by the Oba Osemwende, who ruled from 1816-1848. In response to a diminished political role, Osemwende is said to have leveraged the spiritual power associated with his office by presenting himself as a living personification of the Edo god of medicine Osun. The American scholar Jacki Gallagher identifies these projections as stylized feathers. It is common among the nobility of Benin to wear a feather of a vulturine fish eagle as a sign of rank. We can also see two lower projections of beads on wires extending in front of the oba’s face. Gallagher interprets these as stylized snakes emerging from the oba’s nostrils as a sign of his spiritual power. However, the Nigerian scholar and Edo princess Sweet Efumwen Ebeigbe identifies both of these types of projections as the barbells of the mudfish. The crown is studded with various clusters of beads exclusive to royal use. At the center of the forehead can be seen the bead known as atolekpe hae, “you can never touch a leopard’s forehead.” On either side of this bead can be seen stylized supraorbital keloid scars, the ethnic marks of an Edo male. The head at the BMA lacks the iron inlays on the lower forehead and pupils that are seen on earlier commemorative heads. Braids of hair and strands of coral beads terminating in agates hang down from the crown past the face and overlapping the high coral bead collar.
The flange is covered in royal symbols alluding to the oba’s prerogative over the life and death of his subjects and his mystical powers. All of these symbols are underlaid by a guilloche pattern associated with royalty. At the front of the head there is stone ax or celt. Actual stone axes are part of the furnishings of a royal altar, and according to the American scholar Kathy Curnow are also considered thuderbolts hurled from the sky by Ogiuwu, the god of death . Ogiuwu is never directly depicted in Benin art. On the left side of this ax is a stylized elephant’s trunk grasping three medicinal leaves. The elephant represents strength and decisive action. The leaves represent the oba’s connection to Osun, the Edo god of medicine. The number three also has occult implications. On the right of the stone axe is the representation of the sacrificial head of a man, alluding to the oba’s right to take life and offerings of blood to the royal altar. Both of these symbols are then repeated in reverse order followed by what may be another stone axe or the representation of bells used to call the spirits that also furnish royal altars. Below the terminations of the oba’s beads and braids are two leopards. As the leopard is the king of the bush, the oba is the leopard of the house. On the back of the head, there is another stone ax flanked by the elephant trunk motif. These trunks are then followed by a mudfish and a frog, the order reversed on each side of the head. These amphibious animals are symbolic of the liminal qualities of the oba and his role as interlocutor of the spirit world. The frog specifically represents Osun’s magical powers. The mudfish is associated with the god Olokun and the electrical charges and spines of some species are a metaphor for the danger of the oba’s mystical power. All of the symbols on the flange may have multiple esoteric meanings.
Heads with this type of crown are generally categorized by scholars as belonging to the Late Period following the work of the American scholar Philip J. C. Dark. The Berlin head nearly identical to the head at the BMA has been subjected to two scientific attempts to determine its date. It is made of brass with a zinc-percentage of 28-30%, the highest levels recorded in the studies. This relatively high level of zinc is related to importation of metal from Europe. According to this data, scholars categorized the head as being produced in the 19th century. A second test found the head to be composed of 67.6-73.7% copper, 0.06-0.40% tin, 23.5-29.8% zinc, and 1.93-3.00% lead. This study also categorized the head as Late Period.
The head was donated to the BMA by the prominent Pikesville socialites Alan and Janet Wurtzburger in 1954. No provenance information between this donation and the removal of the head from its original context in 1897 is available. The Wurtzburgers were ambitious and sophisticated collectors who began to acquire African art in the early 50’s when it was in high demand among American collectors. An autodidact, Alan Wurtzburger seemed to bring a shrewd eye for assessing value to collecting from his experience in commercial real estate. In a 1955 Baltimore Sun article he was quoted saying “…percentagewise, good things in this field are just as scarce as Degas and van Goghs.” The Wurtzburgers also collected Oceanic and Pre-Columbian art, as well as large modern outdoor sculpture. They donated all of these collections to the BMA.
According to another Baltimore Sun article, the 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 dependable and authoritative dealers in England, Paris, Brussels, Amsterdam and New York, who have been able to produce rare items.” In 2002 the British journalist and art historian Martin Bailey revealed that around this time the British Museum began to deaccession and sell Benin artworks that were considered duplicates. First they went through a London dealer and then expanded to work with the New York dealer J. J. Klejman. Klejman later sold a Benin plaque to the Wurtzburgers in 1958. Although we can only speculate on how the Wurtzburgers acquired the head, we can be fairly certain that the head was carried off as booty by British forces after the destruction of the oba’s palace in 1897.
Today, the head provides visitors to the BMA with a visceral connection to an important tradition of West African sculpture. It also preserves an image of uncolonized black royalty and provides insight into how museum collections are constructed and for what purpose. It is also important to note the lack of definite information about the provenance and original context of the head. Although the question of repatriation to Nigeria remains open, the commemorative head makes an invaluable contribution to Baltimore’s cultural patrimony.

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)."