Historic theft at RAMM
Within the Museum’s historic archive there exists a letter from the Exeter City Police dated 1st December 1912. Written by the city’s Chief Constable, the letter lists a number of artefacts that were stolen from the gallery. Many of these items were never recovered, and the thief wasn’t caught.
The letter reads:
Exeter City Police
1st December 1912
Stolen from the R.A.M. Museum during the past three months, the following articles are listed, sometimes accompanied with little drawings
- Basalt Club (“meri”) New Zealand, marked 1185, about 14 inches long. Illustrated.
- War Axe (“Taawisch” or “Tsuskiah”), having the socket end of the short wooden handle, carved in the form of a grotesque human head in the mouth of which the stoen blade is connected. The back of the head is ornamented with tufts of human hair, about 9″ high. Nootka Sound, Vancouver Island. Marked 1223. Illustrated.
- Stone headed adze, Tahiti, probably marked 33, about 22 inches long. Illustrated.
- Carved wood figure lettered (“Shango. God of Thunder”) and numbered 596. A loop carved at the end to hold the string for suspension “West Africa”. About 15″ high
- Carved female figure holding in her hands hollow instruments which she is in the act of striking together, about 17″ high. West Africa. Marked 608
- Stone club (“meri”). new Zealand, marked 1219. About 8″ inches long.
- Club of hard wood with expanded end and carved ornamentation about 4 feet to 4 ft 6in long. New Zealand, marked 1215
Please cause careful search for these articles & any information obtained, please communicate with the Chief Constable Exeter.
This letter is of great interest because many of these artefacts were linked with the voyages of Captain Cook or the missionary work of Exeter’s Reverend Henry Townsend.
The good news is that the first item – a Maori greywhacke hand club or patu onewa – was found and returned! This item was obtained by Topsham collector Francis William Locke Ross, and remains with us today.
The second item, the war axe, is actually a Nootka ceremonial ‘tongue clubs’ or ‘slave killer’ (Taaweesh) from Vancouver Island, Northwest Coast Canada. It was originally acquired by Captain James Cook and given to Sir Ashton Lever. This item was presented to RAMM by art collector Henry Vaughan in 1868, whose father and uncle attended the 1806 Leverian auction and who purchased a number of ‘curios’ there.
The third item cannot be identified with the Museum’s register. The sixth and seventh items cannot be found, however, the missing long club is not Maori but rather comes from New Caledonia. These items had also been donated by Henry Vaughan, again formerly acquired at the 1806 Leverian auction.
The fourth and fifth items relate to Exeter-born the Reverend Henry Townsend who worked in Sierra Leone and Abeokuta, Nigeria in the 1850s and 60s for the Church Missionary Society.
These items were gifted to him by the Oba of Abeokuta, cynical eyes might say they represented successful conversion. Item #5 is particularly intriguing because it relates to an original pair of carvings that were once placed either side of Oba Ogunbona’s palace entrance in Abeokuta pre-1868 [Ogunbona was translated by Townsend to mean ‘god of arts’]. The one figure that currently resides in Exeter is on public display in the section concerning the Reverend Townsend. This particular style of carving seems to have originated in the northeast part of Oyo state, and then somehow brought south to Abeokuta.
The Oba’s Abeokuta palace entrance would have been decorated with carved doors and figures that would signify a place frequented by persons of distinction. They publicise as well as restrict entrances to special places (Drewal 1980: 25). Eshu, on the other hand, was featured there as a pair; one male and one female linked by a chain (you can see an iron hoop by the knee of Exeter’s figure). The pair together were, according to Townsend’s notes, called Ossehin, and protected the Oba’s palace from witchcraft.
“Together they symbolise the tension and creative possibilities of human sexuality and reflect Eshu’s power.” (Pemberton in Vogel 1981: 98)
Eshu mediates between the sacred and the mundane, he has the power to also brings things together. Eshu’s flute also symbolises his power as a trickster and ensuring that people are kept on a moral centre. The flute
“reinforces the idea that sounds break the homogeneity of silence, marks time with its rhythm, and is a powerful generative force.” (Grillo 2016: 323)
The figure in Exeter represents the male half of the pair. The other carved figure was stolen in 1912 and represents a female. We know what this looks like. Townsend’s correspondence and notes are located within the Church Missionary Society archive held by the University of Birmingham. Within these notes is an illustration depicting both figures, the female is at the front, the male figure is behind it.
The illustration clearly shows the female figure, carved very similar to the male form, kneeling with the same hair motif and holding what look like rattles in its hands. It’s also similar in height to its counterpart. However, in the photograph of this carving we can clearly see how the elevated hair tufts were removed to hide the similarity, and that the rattles are no longer present.
Are there any clues as to its whereabouts?
Within the museum archive there is a letter dated 15 October 1973 from the RAMM curator Susan Pearce to Professor Leon Siroto in Delaware, which says
“Thank you for sending the price of the photograph of the Yoruba figure. I am very glad to know that its companion figure is now in the USA, although I can’t help regretting that it did not come back to us!”
This incredibly beautiful figure was last seen exhibited at the National Museum of African Art in Washington D.C. in 2004/5. As one can see the carved head has been altered, the two erect tufts have been removed. Also, the two instruments are now missing from the hands.
This altered figure appeared in a book by Robbins and Nooter called African Art in American Collections. It was owned by dealers Ralph Nash and John Klejman but was seen late last year for sale again. It was purchased by a foundation in New York.
If there’s a possibility that this figure could be brought to Exeter, either as a permanent loan, a gift, or even a bequest then please contact Tony Eccles, the Curator of Ethnography email@example.com.