The kingdom of Benin (in what is now Nigeria) produced remarkable bronze artwork from the 12th century to the 17th century. Here, a bronze plaque shows military figures in high relief. Aldo Tutino/Art Resource, NY
Art and science in Benin bronzes
African Arts, Spring, 2004
A famous social scientist once said, "In science as in love, an overemphasis on technique very likely leads to impotence." Good science combines method and intuition, accommodating the objectivity of mathematics and physics that since the Enlightenment has made life synonymous with progress, to the subjectivity of literature and philosophy that since the Ancients has made it worthwhile.
Take dating techniques in Benin art. I single out TL (thermoluminescence) because it is a method art historians are most familiar with, if only in that reflexive way of babies startled by a sudden loud noise. Developed in the 1960s and 1970s, TL dating is used to confirm the stratigraphic dating of in situ pottery and terracotta works. It is also routinely used by museums and galleries to verify a plus-or-minus dating of authentic ceramics.
Bronze sculptures with clay-core remnants have also been dated in this way, including the so-called bronze art of the kingdom of Benin in Nigeria. These sculptures are among the most technically proficient works made by the lost-wax casting process. Although in 1897 a British punitive expedition removed objects after sacking the capital (establishing a no-later-than date for "authentic" Benin works), artifacts not part of that booty, and automatically suspected to be more recent in origin, may be authenticated by stylistic methods, by TL testing, or by another method such as metals analysis utilizing laser ablation. While these methods provide an extra comfort level to collectors and museums, they leave something to be desired for reasons I deal with in An Elementary Guide to the Dating of Benin Bronzes (forthcoming; co-authored with Natalie Lawson, California State University, Fullerton). This Dick and Jane-style primer is meant for art historians who failed ninth-grade algebra and/or suffer from social anxiety syndrome. TL is problematic as an accurate chronometric dating procedure and as a certification of authenticity for dealers and their clients. It also poses a challenge to a corps of middlemen adept at faking Benin art.
The British punitive expedition against Benin returned with booty consisting of thousands of brass and ivory artifacts that now command premium auction prices. But not all manufactures were confiscated in 1897. In chieftaincy homes in the city, in the palaces of dukes on the outskirts, and in rural communities, one occasionally finds castings that, judging from past experience, might someday enter the market. There are stunning examples. "Traditional Art from the Benin Kingdom," an exhibition at Southern University Museum of Art in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, has intriguing pieces. Other examples from the Lower Niger Bronze Industry and the southern fringes of the Edo area pique one's interest. An erstwhile shrine, a serendipitous discovery, brass castings at the northern boundaries of empire--these excite a scholar's professional gonads and stimulate a collector's salivary glands.
Benin's brass-casting tradition continues, aimed at the venturesome tourist, at diplomats and visitors to Lagos and Abuja, at Nigerians as house decor, at local residents as landscape monuments for keeping up with the Edokpolos, at religious organizations that require bronze apostles with Nigerian embellishments, at the government as civic sculptures that honor its corrupt patriots, and at Hausa runners who artificially antique castings for sale in Europe, the United States, and probably now Japan.
Reproductions from South Africa, Cameroon, and Ghana flood the market, too. Bronzes from Cameroon are conspicuous by their bulbous faces and excessive filing, which artificially creates a thinness approaching that of early Benin bronzes. Examples from Johannesburg are inexpensive, aimed at the lower end of the market as curios, and can be found on the Web at
Splinter cells are hidden everywhere. There are Benin-style silver medallions cast in Indonesia, and, adding to the art historical hysteria of Castings of Mass Destruction, one is warned that there are casters in Europe--worse yet, European casters in Europe--producing "Benin" bronzes. As a matter of fact, a casting owned by Chief Inneh of a "bird of disaster," stolen in 1985, may have been made in Europe sometime during the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, and there is also the example of the Eresoyen stool. Both are honest historical recastings, maybe, but now globalization brings the postmodern uncertainty of Blade Runner. Replicants hide in artificial fog, disguised as West Africans. Connoisseurs accept simulacra. Art historians struggle for iconographic certainty.
No wonder dealers of African art are at wit's end about validation. "The problems of art history in West Africa are almost unique," Paul Craddock tells us in a 1985 essay on dating metals. The Benin bronzes are one of those problems.
That problem is complex. The recent "First Word" in this journal by Skip Cole on African art fakes and the addendum by Barbara Blackmun on recently manufactured Benin pieces are cautionary (African Arts, Spring 2003). Both essays purport that scientifically certified dates from European labs are offered as objective indicators to authenticate Benin bronzes that are not authentic. The manufacture of artificially altered Benin objects with scientific documentation is an international cottage industry. The collusion between Benin's brasscasters and European dealers is a grainy issue, no doubt, with Benin's casters as incidental or indifferent participants. The murky trail leads to Hausa dealers, who purchase raw castings and transform them into "antiquities." These middlemen, their long-distance entrails impervious to national borders and continents, are aided and abetted by international brokers, appraisers, and buyers armed with scientific documentation.
Once in a while, historical bronzes do pop up on the market that complicate the researcher's condemnations of casters' infidelities and agents' duplicities. The altar to the hand studied by Bradbury is an on-the-radar bronze and an incontrovertible example. But off radar: owned by Chief Ezomo, one of the hereditary kingmakers, it was stolen in the 1980s by one of the Ezomo's many sons by one of his many wives who buried it in his mom's compound. The police recovered and returned it. Blackmun saw it during her mid-1970s fieldwork, kept on the Ezomo's paternal shrine, and I saw the casting a decade later, after its return. After the Ezomo died, the altar to the hand became part of the estate. Then it disappeared again, to reappear in New Orleans. Charles Davis legitimately acquired it from the inheritors and offered it to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, where it now resides, and I again saw it in 2003 at the Met. Another example, a hip mask, circa sixteenth century, photographed by Fagg (Fagg & Plass 1964) and me (Nevadomsky 1997), is in a Benin City bank vault, with a horde of honest dealers growling at the gate. (Dealers are all honest, just as kids are always bright.)
Benin City's museum might have been a magnet for attracting extant pieces in local private hands. But little has happened. With Igun Street--the brass--casters' guild--only a block away from the museum, I hardly go there except to escort visitors, and I was happy to take Barbara Plantkensteiner and Gisela Volger there in January 2003. (Plankensteiner and Volger are curating an exhibition of Benin art scheduled for 2006 for the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin; Museum for Volkerkunde, Vienna; and the Kunst--und Ausstellungshalle der Bundesrepublik Deutschland, Bonn.) I was stunned. The museum can't offer a haven for its own collection. Bleak, dusty, and half-empty cases testify to objects on loan, but no one knows where. One is not even sure that displayed objects are the real McCoys. Security for the collection lies with people who harbor a grudge against Benin's historical hegemony, have fallen prey to an evangelical religious fervor, or are simply insouciant.
During Joe Eboreime's tenure as Head of Station at the Benin Museum, the Ohenukoni of Ikhuen, a very old man, offered the 100-plus objects from his shrines to the museum at fire-sale prices--as scuttlebutt has it, to prevent his callous senior son (not resident in Benin City) from inheriting and disposing of them. It was a trade-off: the Ohenukoni needed money to redo his palace and silence his chirping wives. Allegedly, some of the objects came in the front door of the Benin Museum and went out the back. Under the usual time-will-tell-or-forget investigation, this incident raised little dust and was chalked up to museum infighting with a division of the spoils. It is typical of museum seepage in Nigeria.
Such leaks are endemic. To wit: to show Nigeria's gratitude for Britain's support during the Biafran War, then Head of State General Yakubu Gowon gave Queen Elizabeth a Queen Mother bust on his 1973 state visit to U.K. The queen's curator thought it was a knock-off, but when Elizabeth II de-acquisitioned her backlog of state gifts, the Nigerianist scholars Nigel Barley and John Picton authenticated the casting as dating from the early seventeenth century. What had happened was that Ekpo Eyo, head of the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments, released (presumably under duress) a Lagos Museum Queen Mother head to Gowon. As reported in the English press (The Daily Telegraph, Sept. 16, 2003, pp. 3-5: "President 'liberated' bronze for Queen from Museum"), the QM head, taken from Benin in 1897, had been returned to Nigeria in the 1950s to set up the National Museum. Britain has no plans to return its twice-obtained QM head, and the discovery of Gowon's wild gift has momentarily silenced the shrill British Repatriation Movement unable to distinguish a Benin bronze from an Ife terracotta.
Several years ago, Roy Sieber sent me photographs of a Benin plaque he felt merited a second opinion. Not genuine, I reported back, but Sieber's accompanying letter stressed his worry that connoisseurship alone can tell reproductions from pre-1897 castings. There are several ways to address Sieber's concern. One is conservative: without a conquest pedigree, the answer is nyet.
Another way offers a post-conquest chronology that credits casting continuity, grants legitimacy to twentieth-century bronzes, and throws in a tentative contemporary chronology. I try something like this in a forthcoming essay called "Casting Technologies in Contemporary Benin Art." But it's hard pedaling uphill. A century of vacuum in the documentation of Benin bronzes denies the bicyclist oxygen, and art historians indoctrinated with a pre-1897 ideology fuel collectors' lusts. Maybe the Plankensteiner and Volger exhibition will rectify this by bringing together East German, West European, and contemporary pieces. Then again, given the 1897 paradigm, maybe not. The only exhibitions I know of to date that have taken contemporary castings seriously are "Kulte-Kunstler-Konige in Afrika: Tradition und Moderne in Sudnigeria," curated by Stefan Eisenhofer in Linz, Germany in 1997, and the aforementioned exhibition curated by Vivian Kerr at the Southern University Museum of Art in Baton Rouge, the former marred by often vulgar castings, the latter by a lack of knowledge of the shrines from which they were procured.
Western collectors of Benin art are obsessed with antiquity. I was with a collector and his support group of experts and appraisers last year. I did not agree with the scientific dates, and I knew who made the dates, and on top of that I knew who made the castings. As I was brusquely escorted to the penthouse elevator for my faux pas, the gentleman collector turned to his co-conspirators and said, "We have to firm up those dates." Pope Paul V in 1616 silenced Galileo by forcing him to recant. Galileo kept his cool and backed away from the edge. I went down the elevator shaft screaming, "Bad dates are bad science. Period."
So it's a jungle out there. Dealers are indifferent to contemporary Benin castings, as they are to just about anything else less than a century old. Art historians regard contemporary bronzes as gross. Forgers and middlemen create a lucrative business by enticing collectors with wet dreams, while art historians and dealers deny the legitimacy and skills of contemporary casters, creative artists, and engaging entrepreneurs.
The upshot is that collectors and curators resort to testing. Galleries and dealers offer security for their clients with funny certificates of authenticity. Still, a good deal of authoritative work is done, but more slowly, and maybe one step behind greed. There is no question that forgers can be geniuses at what they do, and a middle class of collectors has emerged--less informed than their well-heeled predecessors--who view art as an investment, not a passion.
Spectrographic and metals analysis by Frank Willett, Otto Werner, and Paul Craddock add a scientific if not infallible precision. Only the Pope has that unwavering authority, as we know from the Vatican Council's Pastor aeternus of July 18, 1870, decades before art historians gained their cardinal birettas in Benin art. TL dating, X-ray diffraction, SEM (scanning electron microscopy), chromatography, and metals analyses are now everyday kitchen concepts, I would think. Hector Neff (California State University, Long Beach) and Natalie Lawson (California State University, Fullerton) are testing post-twentieth-century bronzes using LA-ICPMS (laser ablation--inductively coupled plasma-mass spectroscopy), and Christian Goedicke (Rathgen Laboratory, Berlin) is doing pretty much the same thing in Berlin but with a turn-of-the-century sample of Benin bronzes. The simple hypothesis is that the key is trace elements of impurities in metals. Twentieth-century refinements in smelting removed impurities in copper and other metals for commercial production; trace elements in pre-twentieth-century base metals are not evident in recent castings. Sampling objects of known early or modern manufacture adds to compositional analyses of Benin castings and modern alloy production in Benin City.
Victor Bordolov of Daybreak Laboratory, a TL expert and manufacturer of TL equipment, and Mark Wypinski, a metals analyst at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (the caretaker repository of the Perls Collection judiciously catalogued by Kate Ezra), have kindly discussed testing methods with me. On the West Coast, I pulled David Scott into the dating game, if only briefly, and his collegial assessments proved invaluable. Scott, an expert on Chinese bronzes, is the head of the Museum Services Scientific Program at the Getty Conservation Institute. His co-edited book Ancient and Historic Metals: Conservation and Scientific Research includes Janet Schrenk's essay "The Royal Art of Benin: Surfaces, Past and Present." Disney Imagineering graciously allows access to the Tishman Collection, whose sterling pieces, including those from Benin, are available for exhibition and comparative study. The UCLA Fowler Museum's Wellcome Trust Collection has several nineteenth-century commemorative heads among other smaller Benin objects. There are East Coast collections, too, among them those at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, the National Museum of African Art, Washington, D.C., and Chicago's Field Museum.
Factor in the Geneva and Milan labs that appear stunning in their scientific virtuosity, apparently way ahead of their time. The guys who run these labs are so straight they have to screw their socks on every morning. However, concerns about reliability and validity creep in, and I offer a word to the wise to take their results with a grain of salt. Caution is called for, and clients should temper their narcissistic desires to own a genuine 100% authenticated Benin bronze. Guarantees have created a stir among art historians, because what look like recently made artifacts bear pre-1897 certification. Like everyone else, art historians believe in science but wonder why test results are out of sync with their own stylistic evaluations.
As much as I like science, and believe in evolution, black holes, parallel universes, chaos theory, and the biological impossibility of men and women ever getting to really know each other, at the end of the game the score registers more on the art history than the science side. That is likely to change. For the moment, art history has the upper hand.
The reason is very simple, one that scientists understand and most others do not. Carl Sagan once said that extraordinary claims must be supported by extraordinary evidence. This applies to any scientific endeavor. Art historians express anxiety over absolute dating methods, not just because the results of such methods often contradict their own stylistic analyses, but also because science is accurate, science doesn't lie, the observations of science are conclusive, and scientific methods supposedly transcend human failings. Art history seems trapped in a conundrum, choked by the subjectivity of its claims. But in dating Benin bronzes, the science labs that test these objects are also trapped, not so much by the certitude of their claims but by the application of those claims. While test results are no doubt precise, application of the results that serves the interests of galleries and clients' hopes for early dates borders on obfuscation and self-delusion, even fraud.
The lab results are excellent, but what do they mean? Scientists and lab analysts are inclined to see what they expect to see, to support what they have been told they would see, and to conclude that their results are scientifically valid and therefore infallible. That is how lab equipment is designed, experiments arranged, and hypotheses tested. But error is a normal part of science, skepticism is its conscience, and control experiments uncover flaws in reasoning or measurement. For the moment, stylistic analysis, whatever the limitations, must serve as that control to ensure that good science and informed art historical opinions prevail over bad science and Pascal's Wager.
In science a distinction is made between precision and accuracy. Precision is how closely two measured values agree with each other. Accuracy is how close a measured value is to the actual true value. Hence, measurements can be accurate but not precise and vice versa. Phrenology is an example. Everyone these days knows that men's brains are larger than women's, based on sexual dimorphism, but only a fool believes that the brain size of Homo sapiens sapiens has anything to do with intelligence. However, first marbles and then, for greater precision, bird seed provided the nineteenth-century anatomist Stanley Morton with the evidence for superior male intelligence, as Steven J. Gould tells us in The Mismeasure of Man. Even greater precision was achieved in the early twentieth century with calipers that measured cranial size and cross-cultural personality, leading the Germans, French, and English to argue over who had the largest brains, only to blow one another's out in World War I.
R.E. Bradbury's historical analysis of the Ezomo's ikegobo (altar to the hand) illustrates how satisfying an iconographic analysis can be. One could add Barbara Blackmun's iconography of Benin ivory tusks (1997) and Paula (Girshick) Ben-Amos's Sherlock Holmes--like sleuthing in "Who Is the Man in the Bowler Hat?" Science and Art are not incompatible; as in marriage they need to work out a relationship. Benin art requires familiarity with the objects, but collectors and curators seek scientific certainty because--shall I repeat it again?--age correlates with value, stylistic analyses are subjective, the forgery of Benin art is a thriving cottage industry, knockoffs are very good, and undocumented pieces from Benin are suspicious and difficult to assess.
Ben-Amos, Paula. 1983b. "Who Is the Man in the Bowler Hat? Emblems of Identity to Benin Court Art," Baessler-Archiv n.f. 31, 161-83 Berlin.
Blackmun, Barbara. 1984. "The Iconography of Carved Altar Tusks from Benin," vols. 1, 2. Ph.D. dissertation, UCLA.
Blackmun, Barbara 1997. "Continuity and Change: The Ivories of Ovonramwen and Eweka II, African Arts (special issue: The Benin Centenary, Part 1) 30, 3 (Summer).
Blakmun, Barbara. 2003. "A Note on Benin's Recent Antiquities" (First Word), African Arts 36, 1 (Spring):86.
Bradbury, R.E. 1961. "The Ezomo's Ikogbo and the Benin Cult of the Hand." Reprinted from Man. In Benin Studies, I.A.I. Ethnographic Survey of Africa Series. London: Oxford University Press.
Cole, Herbert M. 2003. "A Crisis in Connoisseurship?" (First Word), African Arts 36, 1(Spring):1-8, 86.
Craddock, Paul. 1985. "Medieval Copper Alloy Production and West African Bronze Analysis: Part 2," Archaeometry 28.
Fagg, William, and Margaret Plass. 1964. African Sculpture, an Anthology. London: Studio Vista.
Gould, Steven J. 1981. The Mismeasure of Man. New York: Norton.
Nevadomsky, Joseph. 1997. "Studies of Benin Art and Material Culture, 1897-1997," African Arts (special issue: The Benin Centennary, Part 1) 30, 3 (Summer).
Nevadomsky, Joseph. Forthcoming. "Casting Technologies in Contemporary Benin Art."
Nevadomsky, Joseph, and Natalie Lawson. Forthcoming. An Elementary Guide to the Dating of Benin Bronzes.
Scott, David, Jerry Podany, and Brian B. Considine (eds.). 1991. Ancient and Historic Metals: Conservation and Scientific Research. Marina del Rey (CA): The Getty Conservation Institute.
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