H x W x D: 43.5 x 16.2 x 10.2 cm (17 1/8 x 6 3/8 x 4 in.)
Mid-16th to 17th century
In the early 1600s, a Dutch report described the royal palace of the Benin court as having "beautiful and long square galleries . . . one larger than another resting on wooden pillars . . . covered with cast copper . . . pictures of their war exploits and battles." Later travelers' accounts did not mention the plaques; however, the British military punitive expedition found them in a palace storehouse in 1897.
Today, over 900 plaques are in public and private collections, but there is no documentation explaining how they were arranged on the palace walls. Allowing for damage, they are relatively uniform in size and shape. While some plaques show scenes, such as battles and hunts, and others hierarchical multiple figures, many have one or two male figures in court regalia. They depict members of the royal court in the proper trappings for different ceremonies.
This plaque shows a male, as do all but one of the known examples. He is an Edo, a citizen as identified by the vertical scarification marks on his torso. He holds a spherical object in his hands, probably a depiction of the bead-covered rattle used at the installation of new titleholders.
The red earth of Benin still adheres to this plaque. Unlike many plaques in this collection, this one has not been treated with chemical polishes, oils or tinted waxes. Foreign collectors often applied such finishes to copper alloy objects in the belief that they were preserving the objects or making them look older and better.
Cast copper alloy plaque showing a man with a rattle, a net covered sphere, in outstretched hands. Incised foliate background with two relief rosettes. Red clay patina. Original Benin Punitive Expedition auction number and British Museum numbers.
Benin Punitive Expedition, 1897, British government (collected by Sir Ralph Moor, commissioner and consul general of the Niger coast Protectorate, on behalf of the principal secretary of state for foreign affairs), London, 1897-1898
British Museum, London, 1898
Alfred Brod Gallery, London
Harold Diamond, New York, 1959
Joseph H. Hirshhorn, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1959 to 1966
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1966 to 1985
Visionary: Viewpoints on Africa's Arts, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., November 4, 2017-ongoing
The Ancient West African City of Benin, A.D. 1300-1897, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 28, 1987-June 1, 2004
Freyer, Bryna. 1987. Royal Benin Art in the Collection of the National Museum of African Art. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, no. 11.
Moffett, Dana and Stephen P. Mellor. 2003. The Curator-Conservator Collaboration: Remembering Roy Sieber." African Arts 36 (2), pp. 46-47, no. 3.