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Ten years after, Ben Osawe’s works confront provenance challenge


Exhibiting photographer Omeregie Osakpolor with Edo State Governor, Godwin Obaseki, at the Ben Osawe Art Foundation organised show, titled Journey of An African Monarch… in Benin.<br />

Provenance of an artist’s works is, perhaps, the most challenging aspects of art appreciation. It becomes more complex and fragile when the situation involves departed artists.

For Ben Osawe (1931- 2007), there seems to be a Herculean task for the managers of his estate to rescue some of his works from being devalued by unverified provenance.

Ten years after Osawe’s death, his son, Dennis, has taken responsibility of tracking the late artist’s works, as well as documenting others still in the family’s possession.


Osawe, son of a 20th century sculptor in the palace of Oba Eweka 11 of Benin, died as one of Nigeria’s most prolific modernists.

The volume of Osawe’s works in circulation — exposed by the secondary art markets in Lagos and abroad — is amazing.

As revealing as such exposures are, some observers suspect that there might be unverified provenance of the artist’s works in circulation.

Critics would also want to know the number of Osawe’s work in his studio as at when he died, as well as other works discovered outside his estate.

Such inventory is necessary so as to put the artist’s works in proper circulation perspective.

Like most departed big artists anywhere in the world, inventory and provenance of their works always generate controversy, most times, based on forgery or theft.

Dennis, who seemed very much aware of the vulnerability of his father’s name, leads the strategy to preserve the artist’s legacy.

He noted that clarifying the origin or authorship of his father’s works “has come under the responsibility of the Ben Osawe Art Foundation.”

However, he didn’t think that the family would find it difficult in taking inventory. His father, Dennis disclosed, had made the job easier, by taking photographs of the works before death came calling.

He explained, “it is not about the number of works,” but of more importance is that “we have photographs of my dad’s artworks all archived by himself while he was alive.”


Perhaps, his father’s efforts have been of help in tracking the works recently. “I had opportunity of recovering a portion of my dad’s extremely uncommon works from a show in New York.”

The dealer in possession of the said works (name not mentioned), Dennis recalled, claimed to be representing Osawe, but “in the interim, not paying anything to us since the death of my father.”

Be that as may, whatever the complexity that may arise regarding provenance of his father’s works, this can be sorted out by the foundation.

“Regardless of the appearance of the artwork or the quality of workmanship, there is great importance in knowing whether the work is genuine or just a clever forgery,” Dennis said.

He said those in the business of forgery have perfected what he described as “sharp imitation.” However, contacting the foundation for verification, he insisted, could deflate the smartness of the forgers.

Mostly in wood and drawings, Osawe’s works at art auctions are, sometimes, among top of the sale in the Lagos’ secondary art market.

For example, the early art auctions in Lagos between 2008 and 2010 had the artist’s works grouped among the top sale.

As much as every art market space has its challenge of plagiarism and provenance, so far, there seems to be no high profile issue involving any of Osawe’s works.


Among the objectives of the foundation, according to Dennis, is to prevent possible case of unverified provenance or plagiarism “The importance of the provenance of an artwork cannot be overemphasised; there are a lot of moving parts.”

He cites situations such as, artworks changing hands multiple times among artists, collectors and dealers.

He argued that, most times, beneficiaries of an artist’s estate “have to become detectives to uncover journey of their collections.”

With five staff member of the foundation, Dennis has set out to lead the entire management of his father’s estate.

Explaining the challenges, particularly, as they concern Osawe, Dennis noted that as most of the works were created before the Internet age, “it is really hard to track what is no longer in your hands.”

He, however, assured that his family has been on top of the complexity of provenance. “We moved all of his works for inventory system to keep them organised.”

It would be recalled that less than a year after Osawe’s death, the idea of setting up a foundation was actually announced in Lagos.

However, getting the foundation off the drawing and planning stages actually took a long time.

“The timing for us was to ensure that there would be somebody that could viably lead the management of the project, just as I, Dennis now handles the full administration of the foundation built in respect and memory of my father.”


The challenge ahead, not withstanding, Dennis is excited to be “one of numerous people who have joined a family-owned enterprise basically for the posterity and legacy.”

Apart from tracking provenance of his father’s works, other activities being engaged by the foundation, he said, include, “encouraging the highest standard of art in Nigeria.”

He boasted that the foundation’s works include, playing a “critical role in creativity and artistry through arranging exhibitions, art presentations, celebrations and workshops with the point of uncovering and creating ability, making societal mindfulness, and providing a stage to express imagination.”

In its short period of existence, the foundation, according to Dennis, has staged two shows.

“The photo exhibitions included, Journey of An African Monarch by Omeregie Osakpolor, held during the coronation of the Oba of Benin, and Re Birth by Emperor Aigbeoviosa.”

For Rebirth, the show captures what he noted as “the impact of the monetary circumstance on the regular basic man.”

More of interest to the foundation was that the two photographers were Benin indigenes, though based in Lagos.

Significantly, the exhibitions served as a “homecoming event to kick start the Ben Osawe Art Foundation, which has already lined up activities for this year 2019.”

Dennis is not exactly known as an exhibited artist. He is, however, not disturbed by this. He is ready to prove a point in art management and administration.

He agrees that his father’s shoes would be too big for him to step into. But with what he claimed as “many years working” with Osawe and “understudying” the late artist, he has enough knowledge to now manage his father’s art business.

The late Osawe, in his 20s, moved to London, to study at the School of Graphic Art (1956-59) and the Camberwell School of Arts and Crafts (1960-65). Osawe’s famous work includes, The African Maid, shown during the FESTAC ‘77.

Other activities of the foundation include, giving help to proficient and developing artists in Nigeria and support to network and outreach programmes; commitment to a solid social scene in Nigeria as a transformative component in driving social change.

“We do these through the showing of select thematic exhibitions often held for the private motivation behind advancing and moving of visual arts; Then again, open display for the most part the exhibition hall. The foundation shows artworks of imaginative significance from famous artists and makes them accessible for open viewing either briefly or for all time.”

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