The British auctions sparked a fever for Benin bronzes, and museums in the U.K., Germany, and Austria, in particular, sought them out, as did art dealers. In the ensuing decades—from Oba Ovonramwen’s exile in 1897 up to the resumption of Benin’s second dynasty with the enthronement of his son, Oba Eweka II, in 1914—works trickled out of Benin and onto the market. Many of today’s major collections in Europe were assembled from the British auctions of 1898. Other Benin works, including some of those in U.S. museums, come from the 1970s, when the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum in England was sold off.
In modern-day Benin City, the brass casters guild continues to make work. Thanks to a decree by Oba Eweka II, they are free to make sculptures for the market, in addition to the court. “You can go to Igun Street, which is just outside the palace grounds, and see people casting,” Gunsch said.
Though technically refined and part of an unbroken artistic lineage stretching back centuries, contemporary Benin bronzes are not nearly as prized as the works that predate the British invasion. “There’s still the same court art being made today, yet there’s this Western fascination with authenticity and tradition, which is defined in a very odd way,” said Berzock. “I’m not saying these older works aren’t valuable. They’re very, very valuable. But why do we then look at everything that happened after the invasion of Benin and devalue it?”