Lot 12
  • 12

Edo Brass Head Representing a Ruler, Benin Kingdom, Circa 15th - 16th Century, Nigeria

200,000 - 300,000 USD
bidding is closed


  • brass
  • Height: 7½ in (19 cm)


Morton Lipkin, Phoenix
Merton D. Simpson, New York
Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Tenafly, New Jersey, acquired from the above on April 12, 1988


The Grey Art Gallery, New York University, New York, Images of Power: Art of the Royal Court of Benin, January 23 - February 21, 1981
Museum for African Art, New York, Material Differences: Art and Identity in Africa, April 10 - August 15, 2003 
Neuberger Museum of Art, State University of New York, Purchase, New York, The Power of Bronze: Royal Sculpture from the Kingdom of Benin, November 21, 2004 - February 13, 2005


Flora S. Kaplan, Images of Power: Art of the Royal Court of Benin, New York, 1981, p. 42
Julian Jacobs, "African Art at the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum," African Arts, vol. XIX, no. 2, February 1986, p. 40 (referenced, not illustrated)
Frank Herreman (ed.), Material Differences: Art and Identity in Africa, New York2003, pp. 106-107, cat. 101 
Marie-Thérèse Brincard, The Power of Bronze: Royal Sculpture from the Kingdom of Benin, Purchase, 2004, p. 18, cat. 5
Heinrich Schweizer, Visions of Grace: 100 Masterpieces from the Collection of Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Milan, 2014, p. 93, cat. 32

Catalogue Note

In his discussion of the present lot in the monograph Visions of Grace: 100 Masterpieces from the Collection of Daniel and Marian Malcolm, Schweizer (2014: 92) notes: “Situated in present-day Nigeria, the Benin Kingdom flourished through commerce with countries south and north of the Sahara. From the sixteenth to the nineteenth century it was a dominant military and economic power on the west coast of Africa. At its political and religious center was the fortified capital Benin City, residence of the divine ruler, the oba. To exalt the oba and his lineage, artists created a vast variety of cast-metal objects using the lost-wax technique. The most important among these castings were the commemorative heads of deceased obas, which were placed on altars and venerated inside the royal palace.

“Several stylistic features distinguish the head from the Malcolm Collection from the Benin heads of Types I–V according to Philipp Dark’s typology. In addition to the Malcolm head, only three others in this style are known: one in the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum (Jacobs 1986: 40, fig. 21, acquired at Sotheby’s, London, November 26, 1979, lot 151); a second previously in the collection of Jay C. Leff, Uniontown (sold at Sotheby Parke Bernet, New York, October 10–11, 1975, lot 118); and a third in a Swiss private collection (information on file with the author). The stylistic features of these four heads, including their overall spherical shape, as well as the particular treatment of their eyes, ears, mouth, nose, and hairstyle, are so similar that they appear to be works by the same artist. As not one of these heads was collected in Benin City during the infamous ‘Punitive Expedition’ conducted by the British military in 1897 (in fact, none of the four heads is documented in the West prior to the 1960s), and because they are stylistically distinct from the heads collected there, it can be assumed that the artist was not working for the royal court in Benin City but rather in one of the paramount chiefdoms within the Benin Kingdom with important ties to the capital.”

Of particular relative interest in this context is the corpus of sixteen cast metal heads believed to have been created during the 15th – 16th centuries in Udo, once a powerful city-state and Benin’s rival, located some 80 kilometers (50 miles) to the northwest of Benin City. According to oral traditions supported by archaeological evidence, the competition between the two powers began in the 13th century, as Igbafe (in Plankensteiner 2007: 46) notes: “A notable achievement of Oba Ogula [ca. 1280] was the digging of trenches, the first Benin moat around the city in order to stave off attacks from his enemies, the most powerful of whom was the brave Akpanigiakon, ruler of Udo, across the Ovia River west of Benin City.” The struggle between both states was eventually decided in favor of Benin in the early 16th century when Oba Esigie totally defeated Udo’s rulers Arhuanran and his son in a series of battles (Igbafe in Plankensteiner 2007: 47). For a detailed discussion of the Udo corpus of metal heads, including a new catalogue raisonné, see Heinrich Schweizer, “Head Representing a Ruler, Udo Kingdom, Nigeria, ca. 15th – 16th Century”, in Sotheby’s, New York, May 15, 2015, pp. 240-242.

The most plausible way to explain both the existence of Udo heads, as well as their relatively small number and strong stylistic cohesiveness, is that sometime in the 16th century, as Benin’s power in the region was not yet consolidated and Udo aspired to a leadership role, one ruler of Udo, in an effort of cultural citation or emulation, ordered the manufacture of cast metal heads similar to those present at the Benin court at the time, i.e., Type 1 heads (after Dark’s typology) and that this practice became obsolete with the subjugation of Udo to Benin following the former’s final military defeat of the year 1517. Applying the same logic to the Malcolm Head, the even smaller number and even stronger stylistic cohesiveness suggests a still shorter time period of manufacture. Given that Benin heads were usually created in pairs at the occasion of an oba’s ascension to the throne, the existence of only four such heads would suggest a time period of two generations of rulers.

Regarding the period of manufacture of the heads from the group that includes the Malcolm head, several stylistic details suggest great age. All four heads share iconography similar to Type 1 Benin brass heads after Dark’s typology, as well as a highly refined modeling technique, manifest in the treatment of hair, ears, and necklace.

Further, and best seen in profile, the heads from this group share the same subtly layered coiffure, a feature only seen in 15th - 16th century brass and terracotta heads (for the latter see Heinrich Schweizer, “A 16th Century Masterpiece: the Casier Benin Head”, in Sotheby’s, New York, May 15, 2015, pp. 234-238). Most importantly, however, all four heads show iron inlays representing 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 in Benin art, occurring across all known media of sculpture (brass, terracotta and ivory) in only the earliest works: for example the two 16th century terracotta heads known as the Casier Head (Sotheby’s, New York, May 15, 2015, lot 188) and the Mount Head (personal information, Heinrich Schweizer, March 2016); regarding brass heads, they occur in 15th – 16th century Type 1 heads (for example the head in the Musée Barbier-Mueller, Geneva, inv. no. “BMG 1011-121”), 16th century Type 2 heads (for example the head in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, inv. no. “1978.412.324”), and a few examples of 16th – 17th century Type 3 heads (for example the head of subgroup 2A which was previously in the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, Buffalo, and sold at Sotheby’s, New York, May 17, 2007, lot 121); in terms of ivory sculpture, both types of iron inlays are present in the five celebrated ivory masks representing Queen Idia, all believed to date to the 16th century, for example the mask in the Metropolitan Museum of Art (inv. no. “1978.412.323”). 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.

Based on the above historic and contextual information, the date of the Malcolm head falls most likely into the 16th century, or perhaps slightly later, an assumption which is further supported by thermoluminescence testing of the casting core of the Glasgow Museum head by the Oxford Research Laboratory, yielding a date of manufacture in the late sixteenth century (test referenced in Sotheby’s, London, November 26, 1979, lot 151).