“I was shown the broken mask in February when I went to the library to catalog the Osemwegie Ebohon Collection,” said Babacar M’Bow, International Programs & Exhibit coordinator for the Broward County Library system. “It was not broken when we received it in 2001 and there is documentation of that.”
The Ebohon Collection was loaned in 2001 to the library by Dr. Osemwegie Ebohon, owner of art galleries in the United States and Africa. The collection contains more than 160 pieces of rare artifacts, statues, carvings and paintings. Many are works of ivory and bronze. Most have been in storage over the past 10 years, not on display.
“I have not been formally told of its condition, so I can’t speak on it at this point,” Ebohon said when contacted by South Florida Times. He declined to give the value of the mask.
The break is located on left side of the mask, from just below the ear, down to the chin. County officials acknowledge discovering the mask, which was hand carved out of ivory, broken into pieces earlier this year but insist it was in that condition upon arriving at the library.
“The ivory mask of Queen Idia of Benin, Nigeria, was inspected on Aug. 16, 2010, by six staff members. The mask is in the same condition as when it was received by the library in 2000. To research this matter, staff have reviewed the publicity materials prepared for the Benin: A Kingdom in Bronze exhibit (2001) and an art catalog (published in 2005) by the library for this same exhibit,” Cannon wrote in an Aug. 18 email to county administrator Bertha Henry.
“From the publicity documentation and the catalog, it is possible to detect that there was damage to the Queen Idia ivory mask including among other damage, a hairline crack. In 2009, the original glue on the hairline crack failed and the crack separated. In 2010, the hairline crack in the Queen Idia ivory mask was repaired by a qualified and certified conservator who re-glued the separated piece back in its proper place,” Henry wrote.
That expert, George Schwartz, said he too found evidence of a previous break but it was unclear when it occurred.
“When I first saw it, it clearly had old residue adhesive from a previous break,” said Schwartz, director and senior conservator of the Boca Raton-based ConservArt Inc., who has done consulting and training for library staff. “It was a very small repair and I didn’t even charge them for the work because it only took about 30-minutes.”
Schwartz repaired the mask using adhesives.
M’Bow questions the wisdom and quality of that repair and disputes Cannon’s contention that the mask was already damaged.
“He was not here then and when the collection arrived at the library I was the leader of the team that unpacked and inspected it in the presence of Dr. Ebohon. We completed documents for risk management that show all the pieces were intact and none were broken,” M’Bow said.
M’Bow is an expert on African works of art who has written several books on the subject, including the one Cannon referred to in his email. Dozens of his papers on the subject have been published in scholastic journals.
According to M’Bow, ivory should be restored using a centuries-old African process in which ivory powder is heated to fuse pieces together. It should never be glued, he said.
“Someone didn’t understand what they were doing,” M’Bow said. “I can’t see where it has any real value at this point as a result of the attempt to repair it with glue.”
Schwartz is a member of several art and preservation organizations. ConservArt was founded in 1951 and specializes in the restoration of art.
County officials have not confirmed if other artifacts in the Ebohon Collection have been broken. However, according to informed sources, county officials have notified Ebohon they are returning his entire collection.
The damaged artifact is a replica of a mask of Queen Iyoba Idia Esigie, matriarch of the Benin kingdom during sixteenth century Nigeria. It is often referred to as the Queen Idia ivory mask because it was hand carved out of ivory.
After her death, the mask commemorated Idia as the Queen Mother of Africa and the Diaspora. British forces seized the artifact when they plundered Nigeria during an 1897 military campaign called the “Benin Punitive Expedition.” It is being kept in the British Museum in London, England.
The mask was selected as the official emblem of the World Black Festival of Arts and Culture held in Nigeria in 1977. After Nigerian officials were unable to convince the British authorities to loan the mask back to them for the festival, the king of Benin commissioned the Igbesamwan, or royal ivory carvers, to craft three replicas.
One of those replicas is on display at the royal palace in Benin. Another was presented to then President Jimmy Carter, who attended the festival in 1977. The third is part of the Ebohon Collection that is on loan to the cultural center in unincorporated Broward County. It is that one that is damaged.
“There should have been a thorough collections condition survey done by a trained expert at the time the art was received,” Schwartz said. “If there is documentation and it was done properly, then there may be an issue.”
Elgin Jones may be contacted at EJones@SFLTimes.com.
PICTURED ABOVE: Repaired Queen Idia Mask