Human Rights Group Succeeds at First Step In Fight to Block Transfer of Bronzes to Heirs of Slave Traders

On Tuesday, October 11, 2022, counsel for the Restitution Study Group (RSG), a New York non-profit concerned with slavery justice, and the Smithsonian Institution appeared before Judge Christopher R. Cooper in the United States District Court for the District of Columbia for a status hearing on a Request for Temporary Restraining Order(TRO) and Injunction filed by the RSG to block the transfer of 29 Benin bronzes to Nigeria valued at $200 million. Justice Cooper ordered the Department of Justice to respond to the TRO request by Thursday, October 13, 2022.

The RSG filed the lawsuit on October 7, 2022, accusing the Smithsonian of: Acting Without Statutory Authority, Anticipatory Breach of Trust, and Unjust Enrichment in failing to protect the interests of all United States citizens and DNA descendants of people enslaved in the area called Nigeria with its decision to transfer the iconic relics as a gift to Nigeria. The case number is Civil Case No. 1:22-cv-3048, case name is Deadria Farmer-Paellmann and the Restitution Study Group, Inc.  v. Smithsonian Institution, filed in Washington. D.C.

Simultaneous to the court meeting today, the Smithsonian Institution was in a private ceremony at the National Museum of African Art at which they transferred ownership of the bronzes to Nigeria in written agreement. Nigeria represents the heirs of the Benin Kingdom slave traders who cast most of  the Benin bronzes using melted manilla currency it was paid in exchange for people it sold into the transatlantic slave trade.

The defendants told the Court the physical transfer of the bronzes will not happen until Monday, October 17, 2022. “We are hopeful that this is true and that Justice Cooper will grant our injunction to ensure that the bronzes stay in the United States until the full case is litigated,” said Farmer-Paellmann. 

The problem with the transfer is rooted in history. The Benin Kingdom made the bronzes since the 12th century. However the bronzes made from the 16th through 19th centuries were made with melted manillas, a metal currency they were paid in exchange for people they sold to European transatlantic slave traders. Plaintiffs allege that the Smithsonian ignores the slave history and pretends it is rumor to justify making the transfer to Nigeria. The Smithsonian, in communications with Plaintiffs, denied that their bronzes were made from slave trade currency. Plaintiffs provided evidence to the Smithsonian, and in their court exhibits show the Kingdom of Benin admissions to this practice. In addition, statements from top slavery and slave trade scholars are in the exhibits confirming that the bronzes were cast with melted slave trade manilla currency.

The Smithsonian’s pro-Nigeria decision stems from a popular narrative that focuses only on the way the bronzes were acquired by world museums – confiscation from the Benin Kingdom in a brutal Punitive Expedition by the British Navy in 1897. Over 10,000 bronzes were taken away from the Benin Kingdom in response to the kingdom killing unarmed British navy officers and African porters. The bronzes were sold around the world to pay for the Punitive Expedition. The removal of the bronzes is seen as an act of colonial oppression.

In an effort to right this historical wrong, the Smithsonian made the decision to return the bronzes they acquired from rich donors. However, Plaintiffs allege that in doing so, the Smithsonian is completely disregarding the 300 years of brutality the Benin Kingdom subjected their ancestors to: “They looted villages, kidnapped people and sold them into slavery for the manillas they used to make the bronzes,” said Farmer-Paellmann.

“We look forward to the response to our request for an injunction. I cannot imagine how the Smithsonian can justify giving the fruit of enslaved peoples’ labors back to the slave traders’ heirs. It would make the Smithsonian and the United States government agents of the Unjust Enrichment of people who committed a crime against humanity,” said Farmer-Paellmann.

“Our children deserve access in the United States to these historic treasures that our ancestors paid for with their lives,” said Farmer-Paellmann.

The Plaintiffs are represented by Adriaen M. Morse, Cory Kirchert, and Lionel André of SECIL LAW PLLC.

The RSG launched a campaign to educate the public on the 10,000 Benin bronzes located around the world. They are worth between $20-30 billion. About 600-800 are in the United States at museums and in private collections.

THEY BELONG TO ALL OF US – The Benin Bronze Slave Trade Story – Short Movie:

A Petition:

The complaint can be found on the website:


Deadria Farmer-Paellmann, J.D. M.A., Executive Director 
Restitution Study Group


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