Peter Herrmann. February 2007
Pfeil Exhibition
Creation or Evolution ?


Two hundred years after the Enlightenment, whoever thinks that life is still governed by sense and logic will have to readjust his attitude after observing the science of ethnology and its stance on Nigerian art history.

As expected, the opening of the exhibition Bronzes from Ife and Benin has resulted in a wild barrage of criticism and insults, which, as usual in this scene, primarily occurred behind the maker’s back. As I already ironically described in my last column Counterfeits and Vision, we are dealing with a mélange of rumors, conjectures and dogmas that coalesce very dubiously. This time I’d like to express less about collectors and dealers (they were already discussed in the last column) and more about the third player in the triumvirate – even if it is a far cry from a true trinity.

I also offer an advance apology for the following: if I populistically overgeneralize I am of course not referring to all members of a profession. Sometimes the end justifies the means. The right people will know whom I’m talking about. That having been said, here we go.

Within the species of common anthropologists there exists what could be the totemic relative of the rabbit: A rabbit likes to gnaw on carrots it didn’t plant; it, when faced with approaching inconvenience, likes to remain hidden in the plow’s furrow so it can suddenly bolt away at the slightest startle. But this comparison isn’t fully accurate, since, in contrast to many anthropologists, the rabbit doesn’t speak badly of the person who planted the carrots. The rabbit is also not wont to develop a theory with which he would like to impart the impression of intelligence, underscored with an academic title employed especially for the case.


Let’s start with the dumbest: some scientists in all seriousness still believe today that bronzes originating in the Benin culture are only authentic if they were “taken” as retribution from the King’s palace in an 1897 British military campaign. Others simply do not exist. To get to the point, this is reactionary, unsubstantiated drivel and about as witty as “there isn’t any French art besides what’s in the Louvre.”

The reasoning for this attitude is as simple as it is naïve: since expert evaluation of the bronzes is too controversial, the result is that the only truly authentic bronzes are those that were brought to Europe via the military. Proof of their authenticity lies in the military coup. Since other similar objects are laden with doubt, they are not authentic, because their provenance cannot be traced and proven. Their authenticity cannot be proven since they are not documented as an object from an ethnological field study. Not true means false, and whoever possesses such objects is a forger, or an agent in a counterfeiting ring.

The fact that expert analyses are always a bone of contention, however, is a problem that ironically stems from exactly the same museum ethnologists, who not only hinder every effort toward clarification but permanently rekindle the argument among dealers and collectors with their rigid, authority-based position. To withdraw from the responsibility as argument instigators, they portray attempts at clarification as a profit-hungry market bent on raising prices, and they want nothing to do with this market. They confirm their own seriousness in that they emphasize the independence of value enhancement and see the objects as meaningful expressions and tools of societal interactions. Here, the number of objects on hand is of no importance. They then, through their self-created dogma, withdraw the controversy they themselves instigated in a combination of cowardice and arrogance.

It’s a rabbit on cloud nine.

Upon closer look, what is at play here is the Mobius strip of a Saddam Hussein-ish weapons-of-mass-destruction fairy-tale. This tale of social decadence and the fall of a culture was spun and garnished by the British colonists with improvable human sacrifices to justify their plunder. After a provocative incident, the palace was looted and the goods profitably brought and sold to museums in Berlin, Vienna, Stuttgart, etc.

However one views the bronzes in my present exhibition, one thing is certain: the objects are not stolen but bought, and no one had to lose a life. This may be the key toward understanding the stupid antics of some museum people. Because, upon more exact observation, the historical interpretation of the winner is an arranged story, one must attribute everything that doesn’t fit as dogma. Ife and Benin are Adam and Eve. Suddenly there were there and bore legends. The paradise was high culture, nicely and systematically ordered into small stories and histories. In high and middle phases. With reference systems, fished out of oral tradition, from which conjecture mutates into assertion. Kings and rulers read like Old-testament superfigures, tales were spun about absolutist godlike creatures and the major sin was the presumed human sacrifice upon which the expulsion from paradise followed in 1897 as a justified punishment.

The clay form from which Adam was formed is so holy that no one would subject it to thermoluminescence dating test. Animated by Odem (the Africanist who breathed life into the material), Eve emerged from a rib and was able to play a submissive role as queen mother. Alongside the godlike, but not goddesslike.

It is with this absolutist background that the fairy tale of royal exclusivity was written, largely to push values up to their highest limits. Even Felix von Luschan, the Director of the Museum of Ethnology in Berlin, assumed shortly after 1900 that there still must be a large contingent of undiscovered bronzes. This fact was swept under the rug of history to the benefit of the victors’ profit, but a constant stream of hundreds of bronzes appeared on the global market for about 30 years. They were first offered to the market individually, exclusively and royally. If they came from a renowned dealer or an esteemed collection, such objects could command between 100,000 and 2 million Euros. No one thought of starting a scandal at Sotheby’s, Druot or Christie’s, although it was well known that nearly all such objects did not originate in the plundered loot’s numbered goods.

If an object of the same quality came from a collector or dealer without a major name, it would be less qualified, and could only command prices from 1,000 to a maximum of 30,000 Euros. To the clients’ distress, these objects would then have correspondingly low resale values.


There’s something else of major importance in this unhappy game – Nigerian art history. There’s a significant difference as to whether I hierarchically organize a few objects into a ruling class, or attribute wealth and artistic skill to an entire population. It was the same procedure with all colonial powers. To justify colonial escapades to one’s own people, colonized cultures needed to be described in as condescending a way as possible. Only this way could one plausibly represent why the Negro as such required western civilization so urgently.

If one observes the story scientifically, correctly liberated from morals, one can recognize additional issues imbedded in the background described. Money, power and missionary fervor. The question today is why a couple of dusty grail-keepers continue to maintain the nonsense of palace exclusivity. It doesn’t matter how one twists and turns it, the outcome is a reactionary structural conservatism that has obviously become an academic subject to study, otherwise there’s no explanation for its wide acceptance.

To prove their thesis and that everything that came after the palace downfall was fake, photos were presented by one “Frau Doktor” in which she stands in a workshop for tourist replicas. This logic drives the issue home: a photo of an Opel in a backyard shop stands as proof that the Ferrari doesn’t exist. Oh, my.

In 1989, I acquired four commemorative heads from a Nigerian national who knew very little about art and antiques. As someone foreign to the branch, he attempted to sell these objects, like sour beer, during his professional period in Germany, and was duly thrown out everywhere he went. In a conversation in which I referred to the possibility of a thermoluminescence test, he reacted very enthusiastically and, to my surprise, also offered to cover the costs of such a test. I’d lived in Nigeria for several years, was used to elaborate stories and was therefore very skeptical. But when I asked questions on the objects’ origins, I was provided with answers. The Nigerian could even name the years in which three or four of the objects were poured, which he could verify with a release of the motif license from the Igueromwon casting guild. In one object – a head poured in the Ife style in Benin – traces of a casting core could be found and the age exactly corresponded to his description, dating to 1880.

Over the ensuing period I traveled to Benin several times and heard the same story over and over again. When, after many months, the British finally retreated from their political-military intrigues, the city’s population had enough time to leave the city with their valuable possessions. Among the most valuable were bronzes, which served to protect important people in household shrines. After the Brits retreated, the natives retrieved these important things from hiding.

Whoever’s still with me is forced to ask the question why it took so long for it to become known that bronzes existed in addition to looted ones. This at first has to do with the aforementioned negation. But there’s another reason why a certain number of the objects have been cropping up in the past 30 years. An essential characteristic of British colonial policy was retaining traditional hierarchical structures. In this system, local chiefs and their families lived in structured, ordered wealth. Only after the power struggles of independence, the Biafra war’s confusion and the unbelievably corrupt system that followed did entire clans slip into poverty. As is the case everywhere in the world after such a crisis, families began to sell their silverware, so to speak. In the wake of simultaneous Christianization, the old objects lost their immaterial value and parting from them seemed easier than in earlier periods.

Another reason why no one dared to make the bronze topic public were Nigerian export regulations. A national cultural majesty of certain objects was defined, based on the background of a few excavations and the described denial of the objects’ existence. During my stay in Nigeria in the 1980s, there was no – and I stress no – intraborder trading, no matter with which product, that had even a hint of legality. There were regulations on paper and they, in the best cases, served as an argument to drive bribe money into the stratosphere.

The antique market for Nigerian objects ran primarily via Douala, Cotonou and Lomé, all cities in bordering countries. From there it was possible to export legally to Europe and retain the white vest of the Westerner, leaving private Nigerian traders in the shadows of illegality. At the same time no one really knew how far the reclamations on the side of the Nigerian government would go, since no one could estimate the number of objects that had been traded over many years.

A reason for mounting the present exhibition is therefore the hope to display the objects’ art-historical importance and to offer the opportunity to better reclassify the pieces. Through the pro forma illegalization of the entire Nigerian trade, major problems emerged that the African-studies expert Ohioma Pogoson tried to solve as an Akademie Schloss Solitude fellow in the late 1990s. In Nigeria almost nothing is known about what remains of most cultural goods. He had six months to research the matter within the German-speaking world. But as a result of the reclamations discussions in the 1970s and the 1980s, European institutions fearfully sealed their storage chambers and obstructed all field research attempted by African art historians or scholars. Paradoxically, the biggest blockers were and still are most ethnological museums. From the market viewpoint, one could turn this around and reduce it to the banal statement that these institutions happen to have the most dirt under their carpets. Hence the support for this unique fellowship came from an Akademie that normally promotes contemporary art, not a museum of ethnology.

The wide-reaching restitution of culturally important artistic objects in the 1990s was carried out on an internationally diplomatic stage by players in the market, not museums. Interestingly, attempts to shed light on the jungle of exports and research also comes from the market, which stands – in opposition to the keepers of the museum loot – under permanent pressure to justify itself.

This pressure is expressed in many ways. Negating existing objects and the resulting accusations of forgery are the dumbest, and upheld by a very special handful of people. Representing an additional block are the ethnologists, who accept objects outside the lootings but also, almost silently and no less heavily, sling mud on each other in a fight over which kind of expertise should be used to determine age or whether one can only stylistically evaluate things anyway.

The most relevant procedure is, in my experience, the thermoluminescence (TL) dating, which can cull exact conclusions on the manufacturing date from what remains of a burned cast. First this method allows people to say immediately and without relativisation whether an object is old, new, or whether only geological debris could be found that makes an accurate TL-analysis impossible. If the object is old, some slight deviations in the age determination could result from unfavorable storage in soil. This is clear, however, when one examines the variables in the analysis curves. In general this analysis is universally recognized, but even here there are a couple of clever wise guys who say that one could simply affix a couple of cast remnants onto an object.

While this is conceivable, there are reasons that speak against such an approach. Clay shards polished into powder have to be affixed with a binder. Water-soluble material sticks like sand and can crumble off easily. So you need additional material. But such materials or binders react to TL analysis, and show up as irregularities. An additional organic or inorganic test removed the last doubt if needed. All world museums dealing with Old Europe, Old America or Asia trust these testing methods; only in the area of Old Africa are there a couple of members of the resistance that spoil the mood for the others. And the theory that one could give an object any age one desires by mysteriously applying radiation is completely absurd. This theory is batted around, but where, who and how is something no one can say.

Another, admittedly difficult authentication method is alloy analysis, which is based on comparative data. Several of the analyses I’ve worked through with the results | stylistic analysis = old | TL analysis = old | alloy analysis = new | are implausible in the sense that in them, it’s assumed that the metal alloys in the objects tested could probably not be similar to the alloys in the authenticated, palace-plundered objects. It is also therefore mistakenly assumed that the tested objects are new.

Based on these comparative foundations, at least the zinc allotment is outdated; there is something that is not right with the aluminum proportions, although I express myself very carefully here. The entire western African coastal region is full of bauxite. This substance appears in the smelting process, and is also present in the casting core and clay covering. What speaks for newly defining the comparison table is the craftsmanship factor, which, considering the entire chemical and physical interpretation, should not be left unexplored. New bronzes, manufactured for the souvenir market, have had no aluminum component for years, because native ores are hardly used. So why would forgers add aluminum to a copy when it’s alleged everywhere that the aluminum portion would be a certain indication that the object was made in the 20th century?


Shards that are somehow integrated into a “forged” object to make it appear older also pose difficulties from the artisinal viewpoint. A forger would have to own a huge stock with a wide assortment of bits and pieces that are already TL-approved. He’d have to polish down these shards and integrate them into a figure with stylistic élan, keeping the “age” of the object in mind. Since he can only read inexact ages from literature, a forger would have to be an extremely well equipped person with even broader knowledge. Irrespective that the binder problem still isn’t solved, it’s hardly imaginable that forgeries could land on the market without a single actual forger having been identified. In addition, an experienced analyst can irreproachably differentiate a terra cotta sample from a casting core sample, and the analysis curves also vary.

Many of the objects that are placed under suspicion by museums experts entered the market when neither alloy nor TL analysis existed (TL analysis emerged in the 1980s). A kind of demigod must floats among Nigerians; one who foresaw European testing methods decades before they were developed.

They, the godlike counterfeiters, must have also forecast something else very special. Namely that Peter Herrmann would mount an exhibition in the first decade of the 21st century in which he determined that the commemorative busts with winged head coverings do not originate, as previously thought, from the period of the last 200 years, but rather, taking three examples in the exhibition as cases in point, an age of up to 450 years must be assumed.

They must have seen that at the same time, new questions on the provenance of the Ife bronzes would arise and in wise prescience manipulated additional bronzes in the style of Ife but poured in Benin. Only now does this explain that there were objects that are 100, 200 and 250 years old that do not originate from excavations in Ife but rather clearly originated in home shrines in Benin.


If wall plaques have no installation holes, why should a forger pouring an absolutely impeccable object make the stylistic mistake of not adding holes? On every fake wooden mask, installation holes are polished with ropes to simulate age and use. So the forger should simply forget such an essential characteristic in making an expensive, labor-intensive plaque? The explanation lies elsewhere. It’s not a fake; the plaque is old and was never used because it was saved in a chamber as a duplicate.

I would strongly advise a few museum people in Germany and Austria to use their ten thumbs just once in a workshop and then return to their office chairs with a sense for practical skills. The result will be far fewer nonsensical assertions.

A second bit of advice is that the ladies and gentlemen of the scientific caste perhaps visit galleries a bit more often to reconnect to reality. Here we can’t automatically assume that a dreaded corruption of the scientific method will begin, unless that’s what the scientists want. Their claim to see art objects from Old Africa as meaningful means of expression and tools for societal interactions can duly stand.

Even if they’re not paid for their time.

The gallerists would be thrilled. Not because of the money. We know museums don’t have any. Because of the conversation. It’s that simple. Because of mutual, complementary support. Perhaps the museums would get new ideas for exhibitions that we’ve been missing. And through this, more visitors and attention to their scientific theories. And admission fees.

In addition, I would like to call out to ethnologists in the name of some of my colleagues: “Including a gallerist as a professional exhibitor is not corruption. You can call it contract work or cooperation.”

But first, get off your bottoms and stop dominating the concept of African art and African art history, as is common in the German-speaking world. And please no more chronic insults. Then we’ll see how it goes.

© Peter Herrmann, Berlin, February 2007
Translation: Kimberly Bradley




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