In case you missed it, African art made it to the main page of BBC News last weekend, you can read the article “The art dealer, the £10m Benin Bronze and the Holocaust” here.
This article was published on the occasion of the publication of the forthcoming book “Loot. Britain and the Benin Bronzes” by Barnaby Phillips – a former BBC correspondent, hence the big coverage on the website. The book will be out on April 1st, and you can order it here. But back to that article first. Phillips prosaically starts the story..
One morning in April 2016, a woman walked into Barclays Bank on London’s exclusive Park Lane, to retrieve a mysterious object that had been locked in the vaults for 63 years.
Attendants ushered her downstairs. Three men waited upstairs, perched anxiously on an uncomfortable sofa, watching customers go about their business.
Twenty minutes later the woman appeared, carrying something covered in an old dishcloth. She unwrapped it, and everyone gasped.
A youthful face cast in bronze or brass stared out at them. He had a beaded collar around his neck and a gourd on his head.
The men, an art dealer called Lance Entwistle and two experts from the auctioneers Woolley and Wallis, recognised it as an early Benin Bronze head, perhaps depicting an oba, or king, from the 16th Century.
It was in near-immaculate condition, with the dark grey patina of old bronze, much like a contemporary piece from the Italian Renaissance. They suspected it was worth millions of pounds. The bank staff quickly led them into a panelled room, where they placed the head on a table.
The woman who went down into the vaults is a daughter of an art dealer called Ernest Ohly, who died in 2008.
I have chosen to call her Frieda and not reveal her married name to protect her privacy.
Ernest’s father, William Ohly, who was Jewish, fled Nazi Germany and was prominent in London’s mid-century art scene.
As you might recall, the extensive collection of African and Oceanic art from Ernest Ohly was put up at auction by the family at Woolley and Wallis in 2011 and 2013.
And that, dealers assumed, was that.
But his children knew otherwise. In old age, he had told them he had one more sculpture. It was in a Barclays safe box and not to be sold, he specified, unless there was another Holocaust.
In 2016 matters were taken out of the children’s hands. Barclays on Park Lane was closing its safe boxes; it told customers to collect their belongings.
Woolley and Wallis were contacted for their appraisal services, and they brought in Lance Entwistle, the most experienced dealer in African art in the UK, with a talent for bringing rediscovered masterpieces to the market. The gallery advertised with the head in Tribal Art Magazine in 2016, and some of you might have seen it in their Parisian gallery at the time. However, Entwistle remembered who had bought the $4,7m Benin head sold by Sotheby’s New York in 2007 and contacted the collector – who acquired the “Ohly head” for £10m – a figure not previously disclosed (!). Obviously the heirs did not get that full sum, after the commissions for the auction house and the art dealer, surely the taxman will have taken a large chunk of it. Yet, it was still a very substantial amount.
Interestingly, from Phillips we learn more about the heir, Ohly’s daughter..
She is a grandmother, with grey close-cropped hair and glasses. She used to work in children’s nurseries, but is retired. “My family is riddled with secrets,” she said. “My father refused to speak about his Jewish ancestry.” She did her own research on relatives who were killed in Nazi concentration camps. Ernest Ohly was haunted, “paranoid”, says Frieda, by the prospect of another catastrophe engulfing the Jews.
Ernest Ohly distrusted strangers and lived in a world of cash and secret objects. He kept a suitcase of £50 notes under the bed. “Ernie the Dealer” was the family nickname. The children grew up surrounded by art. But by the end he was tired of life.
Ernest Ohly listed his buys in ledger books. That’s how Entwistle found what he was looking for: “Benin Bronze head… Dec 51, £230” from Glendining’s – a London auctioneers where he also bought coins and stamps. In today’s money, that is just over £7,000. In other words, a substantial purchase. But Ernest Ohly knew what he was doing. He had a steal. He put the head in the safe box in 1953, and it stayed there until 2016.
“It was like a lump of gold,” said Frieda. The windfall was not quite as large as it might have been. Ernest Ohly’s affairs were a mess, and the taxman took a substantial amount. Still, Frieda says, she can sleep easy now. The Benin head bought care for her family, and property for her children.
“Part of me will always feel guilty for not giving it to the Nigerians… It’s a murky past, tied up with colonialism and exploitation.” Her voice trailed off. “But that’s in the past, lots of governments aren’t stable and things have been destroyed. I’m afraid I took the decision to sell. I stand by it. I wanted my family to be secure.”
Sometimes, she said, she wished her father had sold that head when he was still alive.
A dilemma would have been taken out of her hands. “It was difficult for me,” she said again. “Part of me felt we should have given it back.” Then she was gone.
That’s quite the ethical conflict there. If you would have been in Ms. Ohly’s shoes, what would you have done? I would perhaps have suggested to use part of the sum to help build up educational infrastructure in Nigeria. Let’s not forget in 2007 history was removed from the teaching curriculum in Nigeria by the Federal Government, only to be reintroduced in 2019.
This remarkable article, in anticipation of the book, gives a fascinating inside about this art deal which’s proceedings otherwise would have stayed limited to the in-crowd of the African art trade. I wonder if Entwistle could have thought the BBC would pick up this specific story from the book. Yet, we do know that journalists always do love to focus on only the major financial transactions in the art world – think of the $69m NFT work by Beeple that sold last week and made headlines throughout the world. The focus goes to the financial wins, yet the art historical importance of the art works remains undiscussed. In my humble opinion art has been taken hostage in much larger discussions about the post-colonial guilt many Western nations face.
ps a second, almost identical, head was sold by Sotheby’s in London in 1971 (see below, with the bowl on top still complete). This specific head was acquired in Nigeria by Eugen Fischer, who had a trading company in Nigeria between 1880 and 1890. Fischer was given this head by the King of Mahin between 1880 and 1884, 13 years before the British punitive expedition. So this head is the perfect example not all Benin bronzes were looted..