Boston Museum Gets Major Gift of African Art from Lehman Heir

June 28, 2012, 7:37 p.m. ET


The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is getting a major boost to its African art collection, thanks to a gift of rare Benin bronzes from New York collector Robert Lehman.

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Robert Owen Lehman Collection/Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Quem é este? The Portuguese would have likely recognized this 16th-century figure as Benin artist’s interpretation one of their own riflemen. The Portuguese began trading with Benin in 1472 and got a fortune’s worth of cotton, ivory and pepper out of the bargain. (They also traded slaves.)

The pieces, which will go on view next fall, include 32 bronze figures and relief sculptures from the historical kingdom of Benin in what is now southwestern Nigeria. The territory thrived during the Renaissance by exporting cotton, pepper and ivory to Europe, particularly Portugal. Benin kings, or “obas,” often kept artists at the royal palace to create brass-cast artworks heralding their feats in trade and war.

Most of the palace’s art—consisting of at least 4,000 objects—was later looted when the British invaded Benin in 1897. (Today, a Republic of Benin exists along Nigeria’s western border but it isn’t affiliated with the old kingdom.)

Mr. Lehman, whose great-grandfather founded the defunct investment firm Lehman Bros., began buying West African artworks at auctions in the 1950s and has since amassed a prized group of bronze figures from Benin as well as several ivory objects from 15th-century Sierra Leone.

Highlights include a 15th-century bronze bust of a young man with tightly braided hair and almond-shaped eyes, his lips forming a subtle frown. The work, “Commemorative Head of a Defeated Neighboring Leader,” once stood on an ancestral altar as proof of past triumphs. Also in the group of donated works is a stylized royal portrait from the late 16th century, “Commemorative Head of an Oba,” which shows the ruler’s head chin-deep in a collar made from coral beads and capped with a crown made from braided strings and other beads.

Other bronze pieces depict rulers astride horses or playing drums; there’s even a bronze figure of a Portuguese man dressed in medieval armor and aiming a rifle.

Among the six ivories in the group is a pair of saltcellars carved with images of starfish, birds and coiled snakes that were created by late 15th-century Sapi artists, the forebears of today’s Bulom and Temne peoples in Sierra Leone.

Because of their rarity and the crispness of their details, Benin bronzes are considered to be the gem of any African art collection. The Boston museum, which created its African art collection in 1991, only owned a single Benin object until now; a museum official said it plans to create a new gallery to showcase the Lehman works.

The gift will aid the museum in its efforts to catch up to the depth and scope of the African art collections in other encyclopedic museums around the world, including New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Met created its Department of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas in 1969 and it now owns over 300 bronzes and ivories from historical Benin.

Mr. Lehman said his father was once a trustee at the Met, but for his part he chose to give his collection to the museum in Boston largely because he thought the gift “would make a real difference in Boston.” The family also has ties to the Boston museum dating to 1938 when his grandfather gave 375 costumes and other European textiles to the museum.

Mr. Lehman’s collection of music manuscripts are currently on loan to New York’s Morgan Library & Museum.

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