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.
Although it is not now possible to identify the role of these men at the Benin Court, their regalia is distinctive and the amount of beads suggests high status. The spiked form behind each figure's left shoulder is an ornamental projection from the garment, perhaps artistically exaggerated. They hold bags made from royal leopard skin or stamped leather patterned to look like skin. Such bags would be appropriate for royal messengers or the officials responsible for overseeing foreign trade.
Cast copper alloy plaque with two figures holding leopard pattern box forms. The figures have beaded hats and collars, bare chests with vertical scarification and wrap skirts with upward projecting ends. Plaque has an incised foliate background with side flanges.
Benin Punitive Expedition, 1897
Augustus Lane-Fox Pitt-Rivers, Farnham, Dorset, after 1897 to before1900
Pitt-Rivers estate, 1900 to 1965
Sotheby and Co. auction, London, November 15, 1965
Joseph H. Hirshhorn, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1965 to 1966
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., 1966 to 1985
Slavery and Freedom, National Museum of African American History and Culture, Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C., September 24, 2016 (ongoing)
BENIN-Kings and Rituals: Court Arts from Nigeria, Museum für Völkerkunde, Wien, May 9-September 3, 2007; Musée du quai Branly, Paris, October 2, 2007-January 6, 2008; Ethnologisches Museum-Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, February 7-May 25, 2008; The Art Institute of Chicago, June 27-September 21, 2008
From Slavery to Freedom, National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, July 2004-October 2007
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: Smithsonian Institution Press, no. 12.
Mellor, S. 2007. From Delicious to Not Quite Right: Subtleties in Discerning the Authenticity of African Art. Objects Specialty Group Postprints, Volume 14 CD. Washington, DC: American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, p.24, no.27.
Pitt-Rivers, Augustus.  1976. Antique Works of Art from Benin. [London] New York: Dover, pl. 1, no. 2.
Schrenk, J. L. 1994. The Royal Art of Benin: Surfaces, Past and Present. Ancient and Historic Metals. Proceedings of a symposium organized by the J. Paul Getty Museum and Getty Conservation Institute, November 1991. Ed. D. A. Scott, J. Podany and B. Considine. Los Angeles: J. Paul Getty Trust.
Screnk, Janet L. 1991. Corrosion and Past "Protective" Treatments of the Benin "Bronzes" in the National Museum of African Art. Materials Research Society. Material Research Society Symposium Proceedings, Vol. 185. p. 808, no. 2.