1897-1900: William Downing Webster and the ivory tusks

Commented by: Felicity Bodenstein

Material description

This black and white photographic print (24 x 19.3 cm) is a portrait William Downing Webster (1868-1913) that makes up the first page of an album of ninety photographs of objects from Benin, in brass, ivory and wood. It is made of pages from various sales catalogues issued between 1897 and 1900, annotated with the prices and the names of  buyers, mainly German museums. The album is part of the British Museum’s collections under the reference Af-A154-1-91 and was donated to the library of the Department of Ethnography by one of its then curators, William Fagg.

Short Summary

Posing as a hunter might in possession of fresh game, this photograph of W.-D. Webster, is one of the few images that exist of one of the most famous dealers of ethnographic objects in late Nineteenth century Britain. His activity as a dealer and auctioneer coincided with the heyday of colonial expansion that supplied the rapid development of both public and private ethnographic collection. He became particularly associated with the spoils of the so-called punitive expedition lead by British naval forces to Benin in February 1897 (link to commentary) specialising in their acquisition from returning members of the expedition. So much so that it can be assumed that the majority the objects that reached the European market from Britain between 1897 and 1904 passed through his hands (Dark 1982, xvi).


This photograph, though referencing the colonial hunter, “one of the most striking figures of the Victorian and Edwardian imperial landscape”(Ryan 1997, 99), was taken in the clearly domestic studio setting of a small greenhouse or open courtyard. The rather frail, straggling stems of the plants set on a table behind the sitter, though evocative of natural elements reinforce this ironic domesticity and appear in contrast with the massive and heavy quality of two symmetrically placed pairs of intricately sculpted elephant tusks. These heavy objects narrowly frame Webster’s rather frail figure as he himself grips two smaller tusks in each hand. His upright stance and direct frontal gaze suggesting a pride of identification with what were his most successful set of products and their status as trophies. Stuck onto each tusk is a small sticker with numbers 1 through to 6 from left to right, referencing them as commodities, on the bottom right of the card, the number 5 has been indicated as “Leipzig”, indicating the tusk’s sale to the Grassi museum of “Volkerkunde” which acquired a great many of its ca. 150 Benin objects from Webster. Between 1895 and 1901, Webster issued 31 catalogues in total, that can be found bound in 5 volumes; they are particularly precious for research on the provenance history of the Benin pieces as he was one of the first and rare dealers to provide illustrations of all of the objects presented for sale.

In their biographical study of British ethnographic collectors (including a chapter dedicated to Webster), defining how these men worked, Waterfield and King noted that they “were rarely field collectors, and only occasional travellers. While they worked from home they were not armchair collectors: instead they were very vigorous hunters, devoted to the constant even obsessive, search for ethnographic objects.” (Waterfield et King 2006, 8) Webster is certainly performing this hunter trope quite literally in this often-reproduced image. Interestingly, none of the many brass pieces that were sold by Webster are visible in this mise en scène. This of course may be due to the fact that outside of their striking visual qualities, these ivory tusks had a particular status as trophies, and in this case more particularly as trophies of war. This is confirmed by the fact that four ivory objects were chosen in March 1897 (two sculpted tusks and two ivory leopards) to be immediately offered to Queen Victoria as official gifts made by the admiralty. Ivory was a most sought after material and had the highest of symbolic value at the royal court of Benin. British administrators of the protectorate were aware of the massive presence of ivory in Benin before the events of 1897 and were certainly aware of the prospective profits that might be made from their sale (Gallwey 1893, 127). In the first few months after the invasion £ 800 worth of ivory tusks were sold in Lagos to contribute to the financing of the military campaign.

Looking at the early sales organized by William Downing Webster it is possible to observe that Benin pieces were among the most prestigious ethnografica on the market. Prices were high comparatively to objects from Oceania or other regions of Africa, a fact that was mainly due to the intrinsic value of the materials themselves. Webster’s sales catalogue prices show that objects sold from a price range of 10 shillings for a brass bracelet to £ 40 for a large brass head or a long ivory tusk  (equivalent to between roughly £50 and £4000 in 2016). The prices appear as standardized amongst categories of similarly shaped objects so much so that ivory tusks, no matter what the relative quality of the carving, seem principally to have been priced according to their length at between £25 and £45 (Bodenstein 2018). Though quite a profitable affair for Webster, for personal reasons he had to sell his entire personal collection in 1904 marking the end of his ascendancy over the market for Benin objects.

Bibliography and archival sources: 

Bodenstein, Felicity. 2018. « Notes for a Long Term Approach to the Price History of Brass and Ivory Objects taken from Benin City in 1897 ». In Acquiring Cultures. World Art on Western Markets, édité par Christine Howald, Bénédicte Savoy, et Charlotte Guichard, … Berlin, New York: De Gruyter. (forthcoming)

Dark, Philip J. C. 1982. An Illustrated Catalogue of Benin Art. Boston: G.K. Hall.

Gallwey, H. L. 1893. « Journeys in the Benin Country, West Africa ». The Geographical Journal 1 (2): 122‑30.

Ryan, James R. 1997. Picturing Empire: Photography and the Visualization of the British Empire. London: Reaktion Books Ltd.

Waterfield, Hermione, et Jonathan King. 2006. Provenance: Twelve Collectors of Ethnographic Art in England, 1760-1990. Paris, Geneva: Somogy Barbier-Mueller museum.

National Archives, Kew, series FO and WO.

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Cite this article as:
William Downing Webster and the ivory tusks, commented by 
Felicity Bodenstein, in: Translocations. Ikonographie: A collection of commented image sources on cultural heritage relocations since antiquity, http://transliconog.hypotheses.org/kommentierte-bilder-2/william-downing-webster-and-the-ivory-tusks, published 16/05/2018.
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