Caught in the Act

MFA Collection Transformed Again

By Jared Bowen

July 2, 2012

Commemorative head of an Oba (King), Benin Kingdom; Robert Owen Lehman Collection at the MFA

BOSTON — For the second time this year, the Museum of Fine Arts has received a major gift that it says will “transform” the museum’s holdings. (In May, MFA Trustee Saundra Lane donated more than 6,000 works including the largest privately held collections of Edward Weston and Ansel Adams photography). New York collector Robert Owen Lehman, son of the famed American banker, has now gifted the MFA with 34 rare pieces of West African art, including 28 bronzes and 6 ivories, and many bear some royal provenance.
The works are from the Kingdom of Benin and date from the late 15th century to the 19th century. The majority comes from present-day Southern Nigeria while two are from present-day Guinea and Sierra Leone. The bronzes depict a range of subjects from Benin kings to a horseman to commemorative heads. Many were created specifically for Benin’s royal palaces. Benin art can be found in museums around the world—most was taken from the kingdom in the late 1800s by British military forces. The MFA says Lehman purchased his pieces from dealers and auction houses from the 1950s through the 70s. Prior to the gift, the MFA held only piece from Benin in its collection.
While this is the first gift to the MFA from Robert Owen Lehman, the Lehman family has a history of donations dating to 1938, when it gifted the museum with hundreds of European textiles and historic costumes. The museum says this gift came about in part because the MFA will display Lehman’s collection in its entirety in a gallery dedicated to Benin, scheduled to open in late 2013.  
About the Author
Jared Bowen Jared Bowen
Jared Bowen is WGBH’s Emmy Award-winning Executive Editor and Host for Arts. 


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