The University of Aberdeen is to return a bronze sculpture that was looted by British soldiers from Nigeria in the late 19th century - one of the most "notorious examples" of the pillaging of cultural treasures associated with European colonial expansion.

The sculpture depicts an Oba, or king, of Benin City, a powerful kingdom in West Africa.

Inhabited by the Edo people, the kingdom was renowned for its tradition of high-quality metalworking from at least the 17th century.

Thousands of metal and ivory sculptures and carvings were looted by British forces in 1897 during the destruction of Benin City in present-day Nigeria by a British military expedition.

The objects were sold to museums or private collectors and others were sold at auction or by art dealers.

The bronze Head of an Oba was bought at auction by the University of Aberdeen in 1957.

But over the last 40 years there have been growing calls for the return of items looted by Western countries during the colonial era, and the university has now agreed to give the artefact back to Nigeria.

Neil Curtis, head of museums and special collections at the university, said: “The University of Aberdeen has previously agreed to repatriate sacred items and ancestral remains to Canada, Australia and New Zealand, and has a procedure that considers requests in consultation with claimants.

HeraldScotland:

“An ongoing review of the collections identified the Head of an Oba as having been acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral, so we took a proactive approach to identify the appropriate people to discuss what to do.”

Professor George Boyne, principal and vice-chancellor of the university, said: “I welcome the decision of the University of Aberdeen court to support the return of the Benin bronze.

“This is in line with our values as an international, inclusive university and our foundational purpose of being open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others.

“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances.

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“We therefore decided that an unconditional return is the most appropriate action we can take, and are grateful for the close collaboration with our partners in Nigeria.”

Alhaji Lai Mohammed, the minister of information and culture of Nigeria, said: “The reaching out by the University of Aberdeen and eventual release of the priceless antiquity is a step in the right direction.

“Other holders of Nigerian antiquity ought to emulate this to bring fairness to the burning issue of repatriation.”

The university is now making arrangements for the return of the Head of an Oba. It will ultimately be housed in a planned Edo Museum of West African Art in Nigeria.