In April 1897, Frederick Horniman, at the time Britain’s wealthiest tea trader and an avid collector, was offered an opportunity he could not refuse. Through “established commercial sources and private collections” he acquired 12 items of what was referred to as “Benin material” for the modest sum of £30. Horniman, a Quaker whose parents had been part of the anti-slavery movement and who as a Liberal MP campaigned for what became the welfare state, had become almost certainly the first person in Britain to purchase items stolen barely weeks earlier from Benin City in an 18-day rampage by 5,000 British troops sent to sack one of West Africa’s foremost civilisations. Upon its return to the UK, the booty from the openly punitive raid was sold, both officially by the Foreign Office to recover the cost of the military operation, and unofficially by the troops themselves, a number of whom had been sufficiently comfortable with their looting in present-day Nigeria to be photographed beside their hauls. Gentleman aficionados such as Horniman would have been the subject of many offers from these “private collections” and in the next two years, the tea trader continued to acquire 60 more objects emptied from the Benin citadel, among them ornamental plaques telling stories of tribal history and a key to the palace of the Oba, or king. Worth millions but acquired for the equivalent of a few thousand pounds of modern money, these “Benin bronzes” were put on display among thousands of other artefacts in Horniman’s palatial home in the plush south London suburb of Forest Hill. Shortly after 1901 a purpose-built museum on the site was bequeathed by the magnate to the then London County Council for the “recreation, instruction and enjoyment” of the capital’s populace. Horniman’s goal, as he saw it, of “bringing the world” to a suburban corner of the British empire’s capital was complete. A century or so later, the museum’s trustees, required to oversee and shape Horniman’s increasingly thorny legacy, this week recorded another first in his name. More on British MuseumAfter a two-year process of consultation and evaluation, it was announced that the 72 Benin bronzes are to be returned to Nigeria, making the Horniman the first major museum directly funded by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to undertake such a large-scale act of restitution of colonial-era plunder. The pledge to return the items was made all the more significant by the unvarnished recognition of wrongdoing that accompanied it. Eve Salomon, chair of the Horniman’s trustees said: “The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force… It is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria.” Other British institutions have previously undertaken smaller returns of Benin artefacts, led by Aberdeen University and Jesus College, Cambridge last year. But there is a growing view that the Horniman Museum’s decision – alongside a similar announcement last week by Oxford and Cambridge universities to seek the return of 200 items to Nigeria – is a watershed moment in a restitution campaign which has seen the slow erosion of a decades-long refusal by cultural institutions (the UK holdings of Benin bronzes are held by 150 separate bodies) to contemplate the surrender of ill-gotten gains. It is a fact which bears repetition that nearly 90 per cent of major African works of art and artefacts are held outside Africa, most of them in Europe.