The earliest references to the arts of the Benue Valley occur as asides in the writings of late nineteenth-century European travelers and military men. British and German colonial officers added their observations in the early twentieth century, but typically commented on Benue arts only when they collected pieces. More detailed descriptions can be found in the writings of British colonial government anthropologists and in the works of the German collector Leo Frobenius. Important examples of Benue arts entered European museums between the 1890s and the 1930s.

A second major wave of interest occurred in the late 1960s and early 1970s. An exodus of objects, mainly through Cameroon, took place during and immediately after the upheavals caused by the Nigerian Civil War (1967-1970)-also known as the Biafran War-that was fought in the country's southeastern region. Emerging onto the international art market, many works entered private collections in Europe and the United States at this time. While we cannot reconstruct the circumstances under which many of these objects changed hands, the African "runners" who sold them (primarily to European dealers) often supplied "ethnic" attributions, which explain in part how certain objects came to be associated with particular peoples.

Fieldwork conducted by specialists since the mid-twentieth century has significantly enhanced our knowledge of the arts and peoples of the Benue region, and a number of objects in this exhibition were photographed and documented in situ. Gaps in what we know mean that the identities of other object types are difficult to determine at this remove in time. The inclination to align specific works with peoples living in the places where the works were collected has persisted into the twenty-first century, an approach that makes no allowances for the complicated genealogies and journeys of specific pieces. While scholars can agree that distinctions in forms or styles do cluster in ways that make ethnic determinations fruitful, even where documentation is thin, the preference here is to avoid assigning fixed attributions when meaningful collections data is absent and instead to identify the localized spheres in which objects are likely to have circulated.