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Looty NFT Project Challenges Museums That Refuse to Return Looted Works

Screenshot of the design process on an image of a looted artwork from Nigeria, that now resides in a British museum. Looty Art via REUTERS

The question of true ownership of artefacts and artworks held in European and North American museums and galleries has been a troubled one, especially in recent years. Many now view pieces that have been held in museum and gallery spaces for decades – and even centuries, in some cases – to be stolen or to have – at least – been traded for unfairly. Although this is often viewed as nothing more than a hangover from colonial times, in the post-colonial world of the latter twentieth century more and more people have demanded the restitution of objects taken from around the world, notably in West Africa.

Although this situation is a historic one that some institutions have tried to address, a new and entirely twenty-first century intervention has been made by a group named Looty. Rather than seeking reparations for stolen artworks and artefacts, the anonymous group of ‘artists, philosophers and future thinkers’ have decided to produce NFTs of what they view as looted objects to auction off. The idea is that a proportion of the proceeds from these sales will be awarded to young African artists in the form of grants.

View of a computer-rendered image of a looted artwork from Nigeria, which has been turned into a non-fungible token (NFT). Looty Art via REUTERS

Usually, it is for the institution that owns an artwork – or similar object – to have the sole right to generate an NFT from it. Doing so creates a blockchain of transactions relating to it – effectively a publicly sourced audit trail so that the provenance of digital assets cannot be questioned. Looty has begun making NFTs of some of the world’s most questionably owned museum pieces in what it refers to as an ‘entirely legal process’. As such, it is effectively claiming ownership of assets just as tended to happen in the nineteenth century when Western explorers, academics and military officers simply helped themselves to the works of art and culturally significant objects they found around the world.

To render its digital versions of the items it has chosen, Looty has been sending representatives to museums and galleries to digitally capture looted works of art. Rendered in three dimensions, NFTs are made which are nothing more than digital files. According to Looty, the next stage of the project will involve the presentation of these digital assets in a virtual museum located somewhere online in which people will be able to interact with them in a presentation that uses augmented reality. Crucially, Looty expects to be able to sell merchandise to virtual visitors as well as display its NFTs. According to the group, the idea will be to extend the project across the post-colonial world and not just focus, as it has for now, on looted West African artworks. Thus far, Looty has been focussed on a particularly famous case of colonial theft, the Benin Bronzes which were taken from what is now modern-day Nigeria exactly 125 years ago.

The project’s aim to give part of its sale proceeds to fund young African artists. Looty Art via REUTERS

Chidi Nwaubani is the man behind the virtual restitution project. He said that he formed Looty with others to address the issue of stolen Nigerian works of art since this is his home country. That said, he explained that the British army – which took the Benin Bronzes by force in the late nineteenth century – already had a reputation for looting from centuries before, especially in China. It was there that a dog named ‘Looty’ was taken to offer to Queen Victoria as a gift. According to Nwaubani, the name was ideal for the project since it referenced looting and colonial attitudes towards it at the time.

“Before the British were stealing art from Africa,” he said, “they had already made a fortune from what they had looted from China.” Nwaubani also said that even though the group is called Looty, they are not doing anything illegal or violent. Initially, Looty presented over two dozen NFTs of Benin Bronzes for sale on its online platform. These were based on the notoriously looted Oba Head, a piece that remains in the physical possession of the British Museum to this day. Royalties from the sales go to Looty and a fifth of the sums generated are set aside for the Looty Fund. This fund can be accessed by artists under the age of 25 from the African continent. According to Looty, awards will start to be handed out once three-quarters of the NFT collection has been sold.

Interested in learning more about Museums and NFTs, read more here.

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

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