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Hidden Treasure

by Entwistle on 9 January 2017

After lying undiscovered for many years in a bank vault, this extraordinary 15th to early 16th century bronze head with gourd from the Edo peoples of the Kingdom of Benin resurfaced in early 2015...

The head first came to the market in the small London auction house of Glendining & Co, where it was purchased in 1951 by William Ohly, one of the pioneers of tribal and non-European art in the UK through his Berkeley Galleries in London and the founder of the museum, gallery and artist commune, the Abbey Arts Centre. The head was subsequently inherited by his son, Ernest Ohly, who died in 2010.

Although many lesser pieces from Ernest Ohly’s collection were dispersed at various auctions following his death, the Benin head remained in the possession of his descendants, never moving from the bank vault in which it had lain for so many years. However, when they eventually decided to sell it, they contacted the Salisbury-based auction house of Woolley & Wallis as well as one of the two  major London auction houses. John Axford, Deputy Chairman of Woolley , in turn got in touch with Entwistle and, in the spring of 2015, following in-depth research conducted by us, we made a joint presentation to the family and secured the commission. The head was subsequently sold by Entwistle to a private collection for what we believe to be a record price for a Benin work of art.

This rare and important royal memorial bronze head, uhunmwun-elao, from the Benin court of the Edo peoples of southern Nigeria is one of the most iconic works in the canon of African art and an emblem of the sophistication in bronze casting perfected in Benin as early as the XV century. Its elegant proportions and sensitive naturalism are the result of a developing stylistic approach that saw these cephalic forms become more elaborate over time as bronze casting guilds, confined to formulae of forms, sought to express themselves through the control of dimension and the minutiae of detailing.


The head exhibits all the attributes of the greatest commemorative heads of the Oba, the powerful monarchs of the Kingdom of Edo (now referred to as Benin), and is, in effect, an idealized portrait of a deceased ancestral figure, in this rare typology shown with a long-necked calabash sitting on the crown of the head. The iguneromwon bronze-casting guild, which produced the Oba commemorative heads, worked within the royal compound and exclusively for the Oba. [1]

The only other known comparable example is the renowned ‘Mahin’ head, formerly in the collection of Robin Lehman and now in the collection of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; its name is derived from the original gift made sometime between 1880 and 1885 by the amapetu (king) of Ugbo-Mahin to Eugen Fischer, a German Lagos-based representative of the Hamburg firm G.L. Gaiser, who had visited Mahin, a vassal state of the Edo Kingdom, several times in order to establish trading relationships and represent German interests.[2] Another roughly cast and aesthetically inferior head exhibiting the same iconography, of evidently later date and archaizing tendency, is in the collection of the Grassi Museum für Völkerkunde zu Leipzig.[3]

Christian Elwes, London, January 2016

[1] Jay A. Levenson, Circa 1492: Art in the Age of Exploration, New Haven, CT, 1991, p. 178

[2] Christaud M. Geary, ‘The Robert Lehman Collection of Ancient West African Art at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’, in: Tribal Art, XVIII:1, n°. 70, Winter 2013, pp. 87-88

[3] Peter Göbel, Kunst aus Benin: Afrikanische Meisterwerke aus der Sammlung Hans Meyer, Leipzig, 1994, p. 49

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