Lot 188
  • 188

Edo Terracotta Head, Benin Kingdom, Nigeria, ca. 16th century

400,000 - 600,000 USD
1,930,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • terracotta


Mr. and Mrs. Allen Alperton, New York, acquired in Benin City ca. 1951-1952
Merton D. Simpson, New York, acquired from the above in the 1970s
Robin Symes, London
Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Casier, Izegem, Belgium, acquired from the above with the assistance of Philippe Guimiot on March 10, 1978
Thence by descent to the present owners


Joe and Emily Lowe Art Center, Syracuse University, Syracuse, Masterpieces of African Sculpture, February 16 - April 1, 1964


M. Peter Piening, Masterpieces of African Sculpture, Syracuse, 1964, illustrated on the cover
Gérald Berjonneau and Jean-Louis Sonnery, Rediscovered Masterpieces of African Art, Boulogne, 1987, p. 84, pls. 4a and 4b
Gérald Berjonneau and Jean-Louis Sonnery, Chefs-d'oeuvre inédits de l'Afrique Noire, Boulogne, 1987, p. 84, pls. 4a and 4b

Catalogue Note

A 16th Century Masterpiece: the Casier Benin Head

By Heinrich Schweizer

Historic Background

The Edo kingdom of Benin was a thriving empire situated in present-day Nigeria. Accruing its economic wealth through commerce with countries north of the Sahara, Benin rose during the 16th century and became the dominant military power and imperial force on the West Coast of Africa. At its political and religious center was a fortified city surrounded by a wall almost ten feet high: Benin City, also known as Great Benin. The king of Benin, or Oba, was both a political and a religious leader, and believed to be divine. According to one oral tradition, Benin was founded by the youngest son of the High God (Osanobua) who was sent together with his elder brothers to live on earth. For their journey they were granted whatever they desired but while his brothers chose wealth, magic and prosperity, the youngest selected a snail shell. Once upon earth they discovered that it was entirely covered by water. A bird told the youngest to turn the snail shell upside down upon which sand emerged. Falling down it formed land whereupon Benin was built. The first Benin dynasty, which is believed to have ruled from ca. 900 to 1170 CE, was thus called Ogiso, which translates “rulers from the sky.” See Igbafe (in Plankensteiner 2007: 41) for further discussion. The second, or New Dynasty of kings, ascended to power ca. 1200 and while their political power was broken under British colonial rule in the infamous military campaign of 1897 (euphemistically called “Punitive Expedition” by the British), it was later partly restored. Today, the Oba of Benin is still a descendant of the New Dynasty of Benin kings and plays an important regional role in Nigeria, as religious leader as well as political figure (Igbafe in Plankensteiner 2007: 51-53).

Commemorative Heads of the Oba for Members of the Brass Casters Guild

To exalt the political and spiritual leadership of the Oba and his lineage, the royal palace of Benin was filled with thousands of artworks in ivory, coral, and metal, presumably beginning in the 15th century under the cultural influence of the Yoruba kingdom of Ife (however, see Inneh in Plankensteiner 2007: 103-105 for other opinions).  Ife was an earlier center of metal casting which is world-famous for its life-like cast copper and brass heads dating to the 12th – 15th centuries, and a vast variety of cast-metal objects created in the technically challenging cire perdue (lost wax) technique. For the specifics of this technique as applied by Benin artists cf. Dark (1960: 26-27, fn 14) and Dark (1966: 220-230). While it has long been customary to refer to Benin castings as “bronzes”, recent metallurgical analysis reveals that the vast majority of various metal alloys used would be better described as brass. See Dark (1975: 29), and more recently Junge (in Plankensteiner 2007: 185-197) for detailed discussion.

Most important among the casts were the commemorative heads of the ancestors of the reigning Oba (for other interpretations see Schaefer in Ben-Amos and Rubin 1983: 75) that were venerated on specific altars inside the royal palace. The production and placement of new heads was a ritual affair which formed part of the investiture of every new Oba (Dark 1975: 30). “[W]hile acting as a visible reminder of a deceased king, [the heads also served] in a symbolic manner as a vehicle or a means of communication with the spirit of the departed and as such [were] not personal but general and commemorative. [The] heads [were] not portraiture but memorials (ibid.: 31).” Furthermore, there were two separate annual series of rites (ugioro and ugigun) at which sacrifices to individual Obas were performed on every fifth day. Each series was brought to a close with a public festival in honor of the reigning Oba’s father at which 12 humans were sacrificed (ibid.: 30).

Commensurate to the dimension of its territorial expansion and imperial power, the Benin kingdom was a highly organized state in administrative, political and social terms. For the political organization see Edo (in Plankensteiner 2007: 91-101). This was reflected also in the organization of the royal palace itself which was divided into three palace societies and affiliated guilds: the Iweguae was a society responsible for the royal household and personal services to the Oba, including bodyguards, physicians and diviners, keepers of ancestral shrines etc; the Ibiwe society was in charge of the royal harem; and the Iwebo were the chamberlains and keepers of royal wardrobes and regalia (Inneh in Plankensteiner 2007: 104). A subdivision of the Iwebo were the guilds of the royal artists and craftsmen, such as the Brass Casters Guild (Igun Eronmwon), the Ivory and Wood Carvers Guild (Igbesanmwan), the (coral and agate) Beadmakers Guild (Enisen), the Weavers Guild (Owina n’Ido), the Leatherworkers Guild (Isohian and Isekpoki), the Blacksmiths Guild (Igun Ematon) and several others. See Inneh (in Plankensteiner 2007: 103-115).

The members of the Brass Casters Guild (Igun Eronmwon) still live today in a quarter of Benin City near the royal palace that bears their name and under the hereditary leadership of Ine n’Igun, or Chief Ine. Inneh (in Plankensteiner 2007: 103) recounts oral tradition according to which the arrival of brass casting in Benin dates to the 13th century: “at Oba Oguola’s request the Ooni [= king] of Ife sent a certain Ezohe to Benin. Ezohe, however, did not want to stay permanently and returned to Ife, leaving behind his son, Ighueghae, who was born in Benin, to teach and produce brass works. Ighueghae enjoyed the palace’s favour and was made the first Ine n’Igun [= Chief Ine of the Igun Eronmwen guild], a title that continues today.” According to another tradition (see ibid.), “the brass workers were properly and effectively organized during the reign of Oba Esigie [ca. 1504-1550, see Igbafe in Plankensteiner 2007: 43], and the title of Ine n’Igun Eronmwen granted to their leader. All brass casters see themselves closely linked as children of Igueghae, the first brass caster; their leader Ine is his direct descendant and an altar at [Benin City’s] Igun street is devoted to him.”

As a photograph by Hölzl (published in Plankensteiner 2007: 105) shows, this collective guild altar features, among other objects, a terracotta head which can be classified as Type 3 in Dark’s typology (Dark 1975: 31 et seq.). Professor Marshall Mount of New York University documented two Type 1 terracotta heads on the personal shrine of a member of the Brass Casters Guild in Benin City in May-June 1961 (personal communication, April 3, 2015). Furthermore, none of the terracotta heads from Benin in museum or private collections are known to have been collected in the royal palace of Benin City in 1897, and none appear in the many contemporary photographs. Instead, it seems that the veneration of terracotta heads on shrines was a distinctly non-royal tradition that continues to the present day. See also Ezra (1992: 47) who explains: “The brasscasters of Benin traditionally make heads of terracotta as well as brass. Today in Benin these are placed on the ancestral altars of members of the brasscasters’ guild (Willett 1973: 17; Ben-Amos 1980: 15). They distinguish the brasscasters’ altars from those of the kings, where heads of cast brass are used to honor royal ancestors, and from those of chiefs, whose commemorative heads are made of wood, sometimes decorated with brass sheets. The use of terracotta seems particularly appropriate for the brasscasters’ commemorative heads, because the process of modeling clay for the terracotta heads is virtually the same as that of modeling wax for cast brass heads.”

The subject of the heads, the vast majority of which fall into Type 1, with a few Type 3 examples known, is that of an Oba. The still often-repeated idea that these sculptures could represent “trophy heads” (for example Aisien and Nevadomsky in Plankensteiner 2007: 65, fig. 1 and 413, text to cat. 189) seems to have been first propagated by Luschan (1919: 348) and was based on a photograph taken by Erdmann in the royal palace of Benin days after the 1897 looting. This photograph features a Type 1 brass head stuck on a pole apparently used for the display of human heads following their beheading as part of a ritual human sacrifice. However, Luschan already questioned whether this photograph shows an original setting or one staged by Erdmann or British soldiers. Given that all other attributes of Type 1 heads, especially the metal inlays for the irises and ikao scarification marks, are otherwise only found in representations of royalty (see below), this idea seems incongruous. See also my previous brief note on a fragmented terracotta head in the Malcolm Collection (Schweizer 2014: 102). Instead it is much more plausible to identify Type 1 heads as renderings of the divine Oba, and interpret the exclusive veneration of terracotta heads on the altars of the Brass Casters Guild as one of the privileges granted to this guild by the Oba in ancient times. 

Dating of the Casier Head

The current opinion regarding the dating of Benin brass heads is based on the research of William B. Fagg and Philip J. C. Dark. Both scholars take as point of departure the assumption that Benin artists obtained the knowledge of brass casting from Ife (Fagg 1963: 32; Dark 1975: 34). Fagg (1963: 32 et seq.) divides the commemorative heads stylistically into three groups and suggests they were created at different time periods, the oldest casts being those closest in style to Ife works of art, i.e., most naturalistic: 1) heads of the “Early Period” from the fifteenth to the mid-sixteenth centuries; 2) heads of the “Middle Period” from the mid-sixteenth to the late seventeenth centuries; 3) heads of the “Late Period” from the early eighteenth to the late nineteenth centuries. Fagg bases his definition of these periods on a supposal evolution in style, a decrease in naturalism in favor of an increase in abstraction, as well as a coeval development from simple to heavily ornate regalia.

Dark (1975: 31 et seq.) retains Fagg's basic concept of stylistic development but refines his classifications. Compiling sources from oral tradition, old accounts from European travelers and comparisons with firm historical data and analyses of other Benin art creations, especially cast plaques, he abandons the idea of consecutive periods and suggests instead a typology of five styles that he associates with the following relative chronology:  “The essential assumption [...] for arguments on the chronology and development of the styles of Benin memorial heads, is that those which look most like the classic Ife bronzes are the earliest in time and those which are least like them are the most recent.” The five relevant types according to Dark (1975: 32-33) are: Type 1, heads with a collar tight around the throat ending below the chin and wearing no coral cap (e.g. Luschan 1919: pl. 56, figs. A and C); Type 2, heads with a rolled collar and wearing a simple coral beaded cap (e.g. Luschan 1919: pl. 56, figs. B and D); Type 3, heads with a high collar covering the chin, without a flanged base and wearing a simple coral beaded cap (e.g. Luschan 1919: pl. 54, figs. A-D); Type 4, heads with a high collar, with flanged base and wearing a simple coral beaded cap (e.g. Luschan 1919: pl. 61); Type 5, heads with a high collar, a flanged base and wearing a coral beaded cap with wing-like elements on each side (the vast majority of Benin heads, e.g. Luschan 1919: pl. 59).

While Dark’s approach had initially been met with some criticism, it is now deemed the leading opinion. It has also been by and large confirmed by scientific tests such as metallurgical analysis and comparison to raw material available to Benin casters at different times. Based on the research of Peter Junge from the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin, Type 1 heads are indeed among the oldest group of heads and in all likelihood date to the 15th century. See Junge (in Plankensteiner 2007: 185-197).

Compared to the hundreds of brass heads made by artists from the Brass Casters Guild, only about sixty terracotta heads are known. Ezra (1992: 48) notes: “Most of terracotta heads display the low, tight-fitting bead collar and coiffure of overlapping rows of ringlets that characterize brass heads of Dark’s type 1. Many of the terracotta heads also resemble the type 1 brass heads in the sensitive modeling of their facial features […]. The cheeks are rounded but not swollen, and the fullness is most evident at the sides rather than the front of the face. The eyes are pointed ovals whose outlines, though usually thicker than those on type 1 brass heads, often retain the deeper top lid that is seen on them. The hair is usually somewhat less delicately and meticulously executed on the terracotta heads than on the brass ones.”

Based on stylistic analysis of Type 1 terracotta heads and compared to Type 1 brass heads, the former show great variety in terms of quality and style which could be indicative of different ages [of another opinion is apparently Nevadomsky (in Plankensteiner 2007: 413, text to cat. 189) whose conclusions are, however, flawed by subjectivism (“Unlike the terracotta figures of Nok and Ife, those of Benin are not artistically noteworthy”) and misinformation (“Many have holes in the crown; again a characteristic of later memorial heads”)]. Considering the treatment of eyes, nose, ears, lips and jawline, most terracotta heads, while still adhering to Type 1 iconography, compare stylistically to metal heads of Types 3-5, and it would be plausible to date them to the respective time periods. However, within the already small corpus of terracotta heads, a group of five heads stands out through their similarity of several features: one of these heads was first published by Pitt-Rivers (1900: 93, pl. 46, figs. 365-366); two, one of which severely damaged, the other of diminutive scale, were previously in the collection of Jay C. Leff, Uniontown (Carnegie Institute 1959: 49, cats. 295 and 297); a fourth in a private American collection (unpublished, information on file with the author); and a fifth, the present lot which is known as the Casier Head and was first published in 1964. All five heads share a high degree of naturalism and close stylistic proximity to Type 1 brass heads which is evident in the treatment of eyes, nose, and lips. Further, and best seen in profile, the group of terracotta and Type 1 brass heads share the same subtly layered coiffure, a feature not seen in any other terracotta heads. Most importantly, however, all five terracotta heads show remnants of iron strips embedded in the clay to represent the irises and the two vertical scarification marks on the forehead above the inner corners of the eyes (ikao). The presence of both types of iron inlays is exceptionally rare not only in terracotta but also in brass heads: as far as terracotta heads are concerned, they are only found in the five heads cited; as far as metal heads are concerned, they are indicative of early Oba heads including Types 1 (for example the head in the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, inv. no. “BMG 1011-121”), Type 2 (for example the head in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. “1978.412.324”), and few examples of Type 3 (for example the head of subgroup 2A which was previously in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, and sold by the author at Sotheby’s, New York, May 17, 2007, lot 121). It should also be mentioned that the presence of iron in a sculpture had in all likelihood important spiritual meaning: cf. the group of altar figures representing the Oba surmounted by a loop, for example one in the British Museum, London (inv. no. “Af1897-550”, Plankensteiner 2007: 383, cat. 157), all of which incorporate a long iron nail running through their vertical axis which was stuck into the altar.

While Type 1 and 2 heads have been dated to the 15th and 16th centuries, Type 3 heads are believed to be of a later, 16th - 17th century date. However, all known Type 3 heads are consistently lacking a small detail which is present in all Type 1 and 2 heads, as well as the Casier Head: this detail is a highly naturalistic treatment of the subtly parted lips that includes a fleshy modelling and slight indentation of the lower lip. The combination of such a highly naturalistic style with both types of iron inlay is further known from other works believed to be of great age, including several metal heads representing Queen-Mother Idia, such as two in the Ethnologisches Museum, Berlin (inv. nos. “III.C.12507” and “III.C.17110”, Plankensteiner 2007: 396-397, cats. 169 and 170) and one in the Liverpool Museum (Dark 1973: 29), as well as from the perhaps most iconic of all artworks created by Benin artists, the ivory hip masks representing Queen-Mother Idia including those in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York and the British Museum, London.

All these artworks have been consistently dated to the 15th - 16th century, coinciding with the reign of Oba Esigie (ca. 1504–1550), a time of political stability and great prosperity that saw the flowering of the arts and is considered the golden age of Benin sculpture.

In light of the exceptional quality of the modeling, the great naturalism of style and the technical detail of metal inlays, a feature which as mentioned above presumably had particular spiritual meaning, the Casier Head can confidently be dated to the 16th century, or even slightly earlier. Created by a member of the royal Brass Casters Guild, it is the work of a great artist, a true masterpiece rivaling some the greatest Benin sculptures in terms of quality and beauty.