Lot 123
  • 123

A Rare Benin Plaque, Nigeria, ca. 17th century

120,000 - 180,000 USD
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of rectangular form, the male figure cast in high relief wearing a skirt with intricately incised decoration, a broad belt around the waist, the left hand resting on the handle of a sword, the right hand resting on the abdomen, a coral necklace around the neck, the face with full lips, broad nose, three vertical scarifications above the wide eyes, with an unusual coiffure of dreadlocks parted in the middle and three braids, two shorter ones framing the temples and a third emerging horizontally on the left; '7302' in white pigment on the upper left and 'c/18' (?) in white pigment on the lower left; matte grey green patina with traces of red residue and partial oxidation.


W.D. Webster, Bicester, England, by 1899 (Webster accession no. '7302')
Albert Gallatin, New York, before 1950
By descent through the family 


W.D. Webster, Catalogue 21: Illustrated Catalogue of Ethnographical Specimens, in bronze, wrought iron, ivory and wood, from BENIN CITY, WEST AFRICA. Taken at the fall of the City in February, 1897, by the British Punitive Expedition under the command of ADMIRAL RAWSON, Bicester, 1899, cat. 164 (illustrated)
Albert Gallatin, The Pursuit of Happiness, New York, 1950, p. 219 (not illustrated)

Catalogue Note

William Fagg (1963: 33) suggests Benin plaques were created during the 16th and 17th centuries: "The sheet anchor of my hypothesis of Benin art history [...] is the great series of several hundred rectangular bronze plaques which sheathed the pillars of the palace [of the Oba of Benin] in the seventeenth century. I define the middle period as that during which these plaques were made [...]. Strong corroborative evidence for the dating of the middle period is provided by two very reliable Dutch accounts of visits to the palace: Dapper, writing in 1668, records with admiration the magnificence of the bronze-clad pillars; Nyendael in 1702 gives a most thorough description of what was probably a recently rebuilt palace without mentioning the plaques at all, which is strong presumptive evidence for thinking that they had already been stored away in the condition in which they were found by the [British Punitive] Expedition in 1897."


The Gallatin Benin Plaque shows a male figure of rare iconography, identified as an Edo citizen by the vertical scarification marks on the upper body. For a discussion of body tattoos see von Luschan (1919: 61-63). The intricately decorated wrap skirt together with the broad belt terminating in an elaborate knot with one end pointing up and one pointing down, and the jewellery consisting of bracelets and a necklace made from coral beads suggest that this is a person of high rank. For a schematic sketch of this belt form ibid. (67, fig. 110). In his left hand he holds a sword vertically to the back, discernible only by the forward pointing disk-shaped knob of its handle. For a schematic sketch of this sword type ibid. (pl. E, figs. a and c). The representation is further distinguished by a large bell attached to the scabbard and a smaller bell pending from a narrow strip diagonally worn over shoulder and abdomen. The attachment of bells is a common feature on Benin plaques, ibid. (100 et seq., figs. 179-188), and more than likely a sign of prestige


The hairstyle, consisting of centrally parted dreadlocks with two braids left and right of the temples and a third one behind the left ear, all with a cylindrical coral bead at the end, is highly unusual on the Gallatin Benin Plaque. The same coiffure can be seen on two other plaques published by von Luschan (1919: pl. 28, bottom right; pl. 33, top right). Since the other details of the iconography (sword, attached bells, diagonal band across the torso, necklace and bracelets) are present in these two other plaques, this suggests the iconography alludes to a specific rank at the court of Benin.


We do not know who this person is. However, hairstyles were clearly important indicators of rank: An engraving published in 1604 by Johann Theodor de Bry (1561-1623) is entitled "Representatio Capitum Praecipuarum Aliquot Personarum in Benyn" (representation of the heads of some principal characters in Benin) and shows a variety of hairstyles attributing them to specific social ranks of men and women. The men's section is divided into "Capiteynen" and "Soldaten" what can be translated as captains and troops. Even if de Bry's engraving has to be seen within the context of its time and would be certainly overestimated as codification of Benin sociology expressed in hair styles, it still suggests that certain hairstyles were reserved to specific social or military ranks. Further support for this hypothesis is provided by the emphasis Benin artists put on the visibility of braids throughout Benin castings. Numerous plaques, including the Gallatin Plaque, show braids protruding from behind the head in an effort to make visible the invisible (e.g., ibid.: 161, fig. 279 and at least one figure each on pls. 31-37). Also certain commemorative heads, including lot 121 in this catalogue, show flaring braids to allow the frontal viewer to discern this apparently highly important part of the coiffure. Regarding the dreadlocks, two other plaques are of particular importance, each showing an Oba on horseback framed by two figures with dreadlocks holding their shields over the Oba's head (ibid.: 196-197, figs. 319 and 320, and pl. 24). This iconography could suggest that the dreadlocks were a hairstyle reserved to the Oba's personal guard. Following this interpretation, the Gallatin Plaque would show a higher rank, possibly a commander, of the royal guard.


The History of the Gallatin Plaque


W. D. Webster published the Gallatin Benin Plaque as figure '164' in his illustrated sales Catalogue No. 21, dating to August 1899 and dedicated solely to art from the Kingdom of Benin. The Gallatin Plaque is one of the first Benin "bronze" (for a discussion of the classification of Benin metal castings as "bronzes" see lot 121) castings ever in print. Because of the high quality of the illustrations, Webster's publication quickly became a highly sought-after general reference book for Benin works of art.


Webster first offered a group of Benin items in his November 1897 catalogue. According to Waterfield and King (2006: 59), in 1898, when the British Museum was selling three hundred plaques from Benin, Webster's associate and later wife, Miss Cutter, purchased about forty plaques from the Museum. Miss Cutter "may have acted with Webster who was to issue his Benin catalogues shortly thereafter" (ibid.). It is likely that Webster obtained the Gallatin Benin Plaque from the British Museum.


We do not know exactly when Albert Gallatin (b. New York, 1880 - d. New York, 1965), the eclectic New York collector well known for his collections of Attic vases (cf. the amphora by the Gallatin-painter in the collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), Greek coins (cf. Albert Gallatin, Syracusan Dekadrachms of the Euainetos Type, Cambridge, 1930) and sculptures from ancient Egypt, acquired the present plaque. Gallatin started collecting art in his early childhood. According to Henry G. Fischer (1967: 253) he was less than ten years old when he "installed a modest collection [...] in his sisters' dollhouse and labeled the door "Gallatin Museum of Art and Natural History." The priority given [to] art in this composite title forecasts his later interests, for, although his collections ultimately included fossils as well as ethnological and archaeological artifacts, artistic merit was always the most important consideration" (Fischer 1967: 253). The offered plaque is documented in Albert Gallatin's privately published autobiography, The Pursuit of Happiness: The Abstract and Brief Chronicles of the Time, New York, 1950. There he writes: "The story of [this bronze] is unusual and fully documented [...] An Oxford dealer, W.D. Webster bought 15 plaques and several other pieces, and these he listed and illustrated in a catalogue which he published in 1899. My plaque was No. 164 of this catalogue, where it was priced at fifteen guineas." Gallatin bought the plaque before 1950, probably in London.


Albert Gallatin's interest in African art was probably sparked by the example of his great-grandfather, the Swiss-American politician, diplomat, and Congressman (Abraham Alphonse) Albert Gallatin (b. Geneva, 1761 - d. New York, 1849). After his remarkable career, including serving as United States Secretary of the Treasury (1801-1814), President of the National Bank and Co-founder of New York Univeristy (1831), the ancestor dedicated the last third of his life to linguistic and ethnological studies on Native American people. In 1842, he co-founded the American Ethnological Society.