Ghana: UK ‘Loans’ Stolen Gold Artefact to Ghana After 150 Years

According to the BBC, 32 items are returning under the loan arrangement. The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) is lending 17 pieces and 15 are from the British Museum.

The UK said it is sending some looted Ghanaian “crown jewels” back to the West African country on a renewable three-year loan arrangement, 150 years after stealing them from the court of the Asante king.

According to the BBC, 32 items are returning under the loan arrangement. The Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A) is lending 17 pieces and 15 are from the British Museum.

Ghana’s chief negotiator Ivor Agyeman-Duah said he hoped for “a new sense of cultural co-operation” after generations of anger.

Some national museums in the UK including the V&A and the British Museum are banned by law from permanently giving back contested items in their collections, and loan deals such as this are seen as a way to allow objects to return to their countries of origin.

However, some countries laying claim to disputed artefacts fear that loans may be used to imply they accept the UK’s ownership.

A gold peace pipe, a sword of state and gold badges worn by officials charged with cleansing the soul of the king are some of the items to be returned.

Tristram Hunt, director of the V&A, told the BBC that the gold items of court regalia are the equivalent of “our Crown Jewels”.

Most of the returning items were looted during 19th-Century wars between the British and the Asante Kingdom of Ghana.

Mr Hunt said when museums hold “objects with origins in war and looting in military campaigns, we have a responsibility to the countries of origin to think about how we can share those more fairly today.”

He argued that museums will not “fall down” if they build these kinds of partnerships and exchanges.

He said the new cultural partnership is not restitution by the back door – meaning it is not a way to return permanent ownership back to Ghana.

This loan agreement is not with the Ghana government but with Otumfo Osei Tutu II, the current Asante king known as the Asantehene, who attended the coronation of King Charles last year.

Although the Asante Kingdom is now part of Ghana’s modern democracy, the Asantehene still holds an influential ceremonial role

The items will go on display at the Manhyia Palace Museum in Kumasi, the capital of the Asante region, to celebrate the Asantehene’s silver jubilee.

The Asante gold artefacts are the ultimate symbol of the Asante royal government and are believed to be invested with the spirits of former Asante kings.

Nana Oforiatta-Ayim, special adviser to Ghana’s culture minister, told the BBC: “They’re not just objects, they have spiritual importance as well. They are part of the soul of the nation. It’s pieces of ourselves returning.”

She said the loan was “a good starting point” on the anniversary of the looting and “a sign of some kind of healing and commemoration for the violence that happened”.

UK museums hold many more items taken from Ghana, including a gold trophy head that is among the most famous pieces of Asante regalia.

The Asante built what was once one of the most powerful and formidable states in west Africa, trading in, among others, gold, textiles and enslaved people.

The kingdom was famed for its military might and wealth. Even now, when the Asantehene shakes hands on official occasions, he can be so weighed down with heavy gold bracelets that he sometimes has an aide whose job is to support his arm.

Europeans were attracted to what they later named the Gold Coast by the stories of African wealth and Britain fought repeated battles with the Asante in the 19th Century.

In 1874 after an Asante attack, British troops launched a “punitive expedition”, in the colonial language of the time, ransacking Kumasi and taking many of the palace treasures.

Most of the items the V&A is returning were bought at an auction on 18 April 1874 at Garrards, the London jewellers who maintain the UK’s Crown Jewels.

They include three heavy cast-gold items known as soul washers’ badges (Akrafokonmu), which were worn around the necks of high ranking officials at court who were responsible for cleansing the soul of the king.

Angus Patterson, a senior curator at the V&A, said taking these items in the 19th Century “was not simply about acquiring wealth, although that is a part of it. It’s also about removing the symbols of government or the symbols of authority. It’s a very political act”.

The British Museum is also returning on loan a total of 15 items, some of them looted during a later conflict in 1895-96, including a sword of state known as the Mpomponsuo.

There is also a ceremonial cap, known as a Denkyemke, richly decorated with gold ornaments. It was worn by senior courtiers at coronations and other major festivals.

The British Museum is also lending a cast-gold model lute-harp (Sankuo), which was not looted, to highlight its almost 200-year-old connection with the Asantehenes.

The Sankuo was presented to the British writer and diplomat Thomas Bowdich in 1817, who said it was intended as a gift from the Asantehene to the museum to demonstrate the wealth and status of the Asante nation.

Ms Oforiatta-Ayim, the Ghana culture minister’s adviser, said “of course” people will be angry at the idea of a loan and they hoped to see items eventually returned permanently to Ghana.

“We know the objects were stolen in violent circumstances, we know the items belong to the Asante people,” she said.

The British government has a “retain and explain” stance for state-owned institutions, which means contested objects are kept and their context is explained.