Even looted artworks require export licenses from UK: Minister
A formal requirement for government licenses could be another impediment to a loan agreement for the Parthenon Marbles.
The return of looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria by British institutions will necessitate the acquisition of UK export licenses. The arts minister, Stephen Parkinson, said as quoted by The Art Newspaper, stressing that things returned must go through the same process as other artwork.
“It is important that the export process is followed properly,” he claimed, in reference to any restitution by UK museums or private owners.
Benin bronzes are reportedly the most important African restitution issue, since the artworks were looted by the British army during their colonialization period in Ethiopia and what is now Ghana.
In the case of Benin, the government's advisory Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art would consider only valuable pieces of bronzes for deferral. Although it is exceedingly improbable that a UK buyer will step forward to make a matching offer and prevent repatriation, the standard procedures must still be undertaken. If a license were deferred, a valuation would be required in order for a UK buyer to match the cost.
The greatest Benin bronzes have fetched high prices, with one fetching $4.7 million at Sotheby's in 2007. Important Benin objects are now rarely openly sold due to restitution requests and growing worldwide awareness about how they were looted by the UK. With demand down, it would be impossible to set valuations for any art pieces meant for export.
Although Aberdeen University officially took possession of a bronze head of an Oba (king) in October 2021, the actual return was postponed until February 2022 to await a UK export license.
The Nigerian high commissioner in London, Sarafa Tunji Isola, considered whether the country could circumvent this requirement by utilizing diplomatic privileges, but he noted that there were "a lot of these artifacts to return home," so it would be best to start off.
The Horniman Museum in London handed over six Benin artifacts to Nigerian authorities last November, although it is unclear whether they are awaiting export licenses or have been returned.
The possible return of some of the Parthenon Marbles would also necessitate the acquisition of UK licenses. Although ownership of the statues could not be transferred to Greece, due to deaccessioning limitations imposed by the British Museum Act of 1963, even loans would require temporary export licenses.
Temporary licenses would force the Marbles to be repatriated to the UK rather than remaining in Athens indefinitely; a condition that has so far been deemed unacceptable by the Greeks. As a result, the official requirement for UK government temporary permissions may prove to be another stumbling block to a lending agreement between the British Museum and the Acropolis Museum.
It is worth noting that Western nations contributed to the theft of thousands of pieces of African art during conflict and colonization.
Oxford Uni: 97 artifacts looted in 1897 to be returned to Nigeria