Loot tells the dramatic and tragic tale of the Benin Bronzes – the story of a powerful West African kingdom, British imperial ambition and conquest, the subsequent European discovery of African artistic genius, the dispersal of the Bronzes amongst the world’s great museums and private collections, and today’s debate over their future.
The British conquered the Benin kingdom, in modern day Nigeria, in 1897. They exiled the king, and looted his treasures. When the Benin Bronzes were first exhibited in London a few months later they caused a sensation and helped reshape European attitudes towards Africa, challenging the prevailing view of the continent as ‘backward’ and without culture. But seeing them in the British Museum today is, in the words of one Benin City artist, like ‘visiting relatives behind bars’. In a time of fevered debate about the legacies of empire, museums and history, what does the future hold for the Bronzes?
Where to buy
Prospect Best Books of 2021.
Shortlisted for the Historical Writers’ Association Crown Awards 2022.
“Gripping.. A must read.” Financial Times
“Mr Phillips..who knows Nigeria well, adds new and much-needed context to the story of the Edo empire and its bloody finale… at pains to show how deeply the Edo people feel the loss of their physical culture…but clear-sighted about the political and financial obstacles that must still be overcome.” The Economist
“Perfect timing for this valuable guide to a complex narrative” The Sunday Times
“A humane and thoughtful book, devoid of the sort of posturing that mars the debate over the repatriation of objects brought to the West during the colonial era.” Wall Street Journal
“It is the handling of this seeping undertone of racism that makes this book so valuable, a primer for the debate on colonial guilt and echoing white supremacy….we are left examining our consciences.” Tim Butcher, The Spectator
“Brilliant.” Mail & Guardian, South Africa
This “compelling book is full of African voices. .. it is enough to encourage people to read it for its many virtues. It is balanced, sternly critical of the Brits when that is appropriate, but at the same time humane, reasonable, and ultimately optimistic.” Evening Standard
“A balanced reconstruction of the Benin saga and probes the difficult choices facing European – and Nigerian – museums….Phillips excels at tracing the roundabout ways in which objects could find their way into museums.” Times Literary Supplement
“Persuasive.. A lucid history. Phillips is scrupulously fair yet damning.” Prospect
“Well-balanced and highly readable.” Peter Frankopan, Air Mail
“Debate continues to rage over whether the Benin Bronzes held in London’s British Museum should be returned to Africa. Barnaby Phillips focuses instead on their origins, investigating their medieval authors, and what they can tell us about Africa’s culture and history.” BBC History
“For the first time a comprehensive account of the famed Benin Bronzes, from their creation to their pillaging by British troops to subsequent attempts at recovery. Phillips writes with ease and erudition.” Alexander Herman, Art Newspaper
“The story is well told in Barnaby Phillips’s Loot, Britain and the Benin Bronzes…Barnaby Phillips’s reporting proved that two Benin plaques acquired by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1991 had been stolen from the [Nigerian] National Museum.” David Frum, The Atlantic
“Barnaby Phillips is….convinced that justice demands their return.” Adewale Maja-Pearce, London Review of Books
“Highly-readable and admirably even-handed. At a time of increasingly polarised debate on the heritage of Empire….may be read with much profit by specialists and general readers alike. ” Burlington Magazine
“Brilliant.. expertly marshalled historical research and compelling narrative.”
William Boyd, novelist
“This timely, thoughtful and beautifully crafted volume deftly guides us through a truly astounding passage of events. These are the kind of histories that change the way that we look at things we thought we knew – whilst shocking us at the things that we simply hadn’t grasped.”
Gus Casely-Hayford, Director V&A East, former Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.
“Vivid, dramatic and colourful, Loot is a story of empire running amok. It still has huge resonance in the debate about colonialism and racism today.”
Kwasi Kwarteng, MP, Author Ghosts of Empire
“Accessible yet nuanced we hear the voices of a contested history from the looters themselves and the bronze casters of Benin City, to the leaders of the world’s major cultural institutions and so many other players in this drama. Barnaby takes us on a journey raising important questions about empire and the meaning of art, civilisation and culture.”
Clive Myrie, BBC Chief Correspondent and Presenter
“Reading Barnaby Phillips’s Loot is like walking a sniffing dog through the minds, homes, and storerooms of the government agents, military adventurers, museums, art dealers, and collectors… Brilliant evidenced-based and well-argued case for restitution and return of the looted religious and ceremonial objects to the rightful owner- the Benin Kingdom. It is a highly recommended book that will thrill the reader to the last page.”
Uyilawa Usuanele, Associate Professor of African History, State University of New York.
“A journalist’s ability to sniff out a newsworthy story and tell it with empathy and an accessible style…vivid….gives the most space to current Nigerian voices on these on-going issues of restitution, and the difficult negotiations around an appropriate African home for the Benin bronzes in the future”. Robert Home, Journal of African Cultural Heritage Studies.
“Draws on the author’s lifetime of experience in Africa. Phillips also interviewed a range of contemporary artists, activists, scholars, and museum and government officials in Nigeria, who offered a wide variety of perspectives on the topic of the Benin Bronzes and where they belong today.” Elizabeth Marlowe, International Journal of Cultural Property.
“A balanced and expertly-written history of how the world-famous Benin bronzes were stolen and their fate, which dives deep into the moral and ethical dilemmas of museums and collectors today.” Historical Writers’ Association.
“Loot offers a valuable primer on the history and controversy of the Benin Bronzes. After many years as a correspondent for the BBC’s Africa service, Phillips is able to move deftly back and forth between Benin City, Lagos, London, and several places in between. What sets Loot apart from many of the other works about the Benin Bronzes is Phillips’s willingness to engage with ordinary Africans.” H-Net Reviews in the Humanities & Social Sciences