Nigerian protesters scored a huge victory the day before Christmas when the auction house, Sotheby's, issued a rare press release announcing the cancellation of its sale of a prized Benin ivory mask. In a statement dated December 24, Sotheby’s disclosed the cancellation of the auction, which had been scheduled for February 17, 2011 in London.
The auction had spurred a widespread protest by Nigerians and other sympathetic groups organized by the UK-based Nigeria Liberty Forum (NLF). Hundreds of protesters had contacted Sotheby’s in writing, through phone calls or by street protests to demand the cancellation of the sale and to push for the return of the mask to Nigeria.
The mask was stolen during the colonial era by Lieutenant Colonel Henry Lionel Galway, who had acted as a deputy commissioner and vice-consul in what is now known as the Niger Delta region. Mr. Galway and other British soldiers of fortune had engaged in a massive plunder of prized artifacts when British soldiers attacked the Benin Kingdom, looted its prized possessions and burnt down the city.
Mr. Galway’s descendants had contacted Sotheby's to handle the sale of the masks expected to fetch as much as £5 million.
But in the face of widespread protests, Sotheby’s issued a terse statement titled “STATEMENT REGARDING CANCELLATION OF BENIN SALE”. The statement read: “The Benin Ivory Pendant Mask and other items consigned by the descendants of Lionel Galway which Sotheby’s had announced for auction in February 2011 have been withdrawn from sale at the request of the consignors.”
In an earlier press release dated December 20, 2010, Sotheby's had exuberantly announced that it planned to auction off a “16th century ivory pendant mask depicting the head of the Queen mother from the Edo peoples, Kingdom of Benin in Nigeria along with five other rare works from Benin collected at the same time.”
That statement propelled the Nigeria Liberty Forum (NLF) into mobilizing against the sale of the prized artifacts. “We can no longer sit idly and allow people who plundered and looted our cultural resources and often engaged in highly genocidal attacks on African peoples to come out in the open and profit from their deplorable acts,” said Kayode Ogundamisi, a leader of NLF.
The protests against the Sotheby’s auction were mounted through SaharaReporters as well as petitions on Facebook and twitter.
The protest organizers encouraged Nigerians across the globe to contact Sotheby's auctioneers by phone or e-mail. These tactics as well as threats of legal action forced Sotheby's in London to initially put the sale on hold while seeking further information from the NLF. By Christmas Eve, the sale had been canceled and the announcement removed from Sotheby’s auction calendar.
The campaign marks the second time the NLF would conduct a successful “telephone campaign” to stop high-profile acts of violations of public interests. The group’s first major campaign was to mobilize Nigerians to bombard a Heathrow Hotel with phone calls to drive away Nigeria's former Attorney General, Michael Aondoakaa, who had sneaked into London to sabotage the trial of associates of former Governor James Ibori. Mr. Aondoakaa was forced to flee the hotel as Nigerians all over the world made more than 1,500 calls to his hotel in less than one hour.
Mr. Ogundamisi told SaharaReporters that the NLF was monitoring other artifacts purloined from Nigeria by British colonial officials and held in different parts of the world. “We will not rest until these cultural assets are returned to their original owners in Nigeria,” he said.