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.
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.