Aberdeen University has now agreed to return the cutural treasure which will now enter the collection of the new Edo Museum of West African Art in Benin City.
Thousands of metal and ivory sculptures and carvings were looted by British forces in 1897 during the destruction of Benin City in present-day Nigeria.
Many of the items were sold on by soldiers and administrators with the university acquiring the Bronze head of an Oba, or king, at auction in the 1950s for £750.
The object, now insured for hundreds of thousands of pounds, is considered one of the finest examples of Benin Late Period Art.
Talks have been ongoing between a number of museums and the Nigerian authorities, including the Royal Court, with Aberdeen University the first institution to agree to return one of the Benin treasures.
Neil Curtis, Head of Museums and Special Collections said “The University of Aberdeen has previously agreed to repatriate sacred items and ancestral remains to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and has a procedure that considers requests in consultation with claimants.
“An ongoing review of the collections identified the Head of an Oba as having been acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral, so we took a proactive approach to identify the appropriate people to discuss what to do.”
Over the last 40 years there have been growing calls for the return of such items.
An expert panel, including academic specialists and curators, as well as representatives of the University Court, the Hunterian Museum in the University of Glasgow and the Nigerian claimants, discussed the proposal in detail and unanimously recommended its return to Nigeria.
On Tuesday, the University’s governing body supported the unconditional return of the Benin bronze to Nigeria.
Professor George Boyne, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen said: “It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances. We therefore decided that an unconditional return is the most appropriate action we can take, and are grateful for the close collaboration with our partners in Nigeria.”
Benin City was the centre of a powerful and long-lasting kingdom in West Africa of the Edo people, renowned for its tradition of high-quality metalworking from at least the 17th century.
The expansion of British trade and colonial control in the later 19th century brought it into conflict with the kingdom of Benin, ultimately leading, in 1897, to the city being attacked and destroyed by a British military expedition - the “Benin Punitive Expedition” - with many inhabitants killed. The royal palace was burned and looted, and the Oba, Ovonramwen Nogbaisi, exiled.
Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the Minister of Information and Culture of Nigeria said: “The reaching out by the University of Aberdeen and eventual release of the priceless antiquity is a step in the right direction. Other holders of Nigerian antiquity ought to emulate this to bring fairness to the burning issue of repatriation”.
The University is now making practical arrangements for the return of the Head of an Oba, and collaborating in organising a celebratory event to mark its return home.