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September 20, 2017

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Nigerian art taken in 1897 British raid returns to African homeland

BENIN CITY, Nigeria -- Two statues from among thousands of works of art looted by British soldiers in the 19th century have been returned to Nigeria, prompting calls for other "stolen" treasures to be repatriated.

For more than a century, the artifacts from the "Benin Bronzes" collection had been in the family of retired medical consultant Mark Walker, whose grandfather was involved in a 1897 British raid in which they were taken.

But on Friday, the statues — depicting a fabled ibis bird and the traditional monarch's bell — were given back to the Oba (King) of Benin, Uku Akpolokpolo Erediauwa I, at a ceremony attended by royal officials and local dignitaries.

Walker said he decided to return the statues to Nigeria in September last year after learning of their history, in part from his grandfather's diary from the time, which described the treasures as "loot."

"That gave me the idea that perhaps they should go to the place where they will be appreciated for ever," he told AFP in Benin City, 240 kilometers east of Lagos.

"I'm very proud to be part of this because it is clearly seen as an historic occasion.

"I had no idea it would be regarded with such importance and it is very gratifying to me to have been able to play some small part in the history of the restoration of the bronzes because I think more will come back."

The tale of the precious artifacts is one of intrigue and tragedy. It began when nine British officers were killed while on a trade mission to Erediauwa's grandfather, ruler of the then independent kingdom of Benin.

The British reaction was fierce. Walker's grandfather was part of a British military deployment to the kingdom to avenge the deaths of the officers. The overwhelming show of strength left several thousand local people dead and the city set ablaze, while the oba was forced into exile.

The royal palace was looted, resulting in the removal of hundreds of artworks, including the Benin Bronzes, which showed highly decorative images of the oba and his courtiers from centuries earlier.

Most of the ornate bronzes — in fact melted down and refashioned brass from bracelets and other objects offered by Portuguese traders in the 15th century — have been at the British Museum in London ever since.

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