29 Oct 2021

Taylor Vinters has played a crucial, behind the scenes role in supporting Jesus College to spark a wave of repatriating looted cultural artefacts.

Chris Willis Pickup, Partner in our Charities and Social Ventures team, was present at Jesus College Cambridge for the first repatriation of its kind, on 27 October 2021. The College formally returned the Okuokor, a royal ancestral heirloom from the kingdom of Benin. The bronze cockerel was looted in 1897 during an expedition by British forces and subsequently donated to Jesus College in 1905.

The College announced its intention to return the Okukor in 2019, following calls from students and a thoughtful examination of evidence and arguments undertaken by its Legacy of Slavery Working Party. The decision was quickly followed by similar commitments from several museums and other institutions, increasingly concerned by the ethics of displaying plundered historical artefacts.

From a charity law perspective, this case invoked an unusual principle of charity law, called the ‘ex gratia’ principle, that allows charity trustees to respond to a moral obligation, even where a transfer is not within their legal powers.

The Okuokor bronze was presented to representatives of the Royal Court of Benin, the Nigerian federal government and Nigeria’s High Commissioner to the UK. In a move appropriate to Black History Month, Sonita Alleyne, Master of Jesus College said, “This is the right thing to do out of respect for the unique heritage and history of this artefact.

Lia Mohammed, Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, said “We look forward to a similar return of our artefacts by other institutions.” There are currently at least hundreds of Benin artefacts in the UK, the majority of them taken during the looting.

Chris Willis Pickup applauded the “courageous moral leadership from the College’s students, fellows and charity trustees” and thanked Taylor Vinters’ Kieran John and Lizzie Wilson for their support on the legal and regulatory aspects of the repatriation. Chris also paid tribute to the Charity Commission for its prompt and careful work considering and approving the use of the ex gratia principle in this case.

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