The Ife Head, is one of eighteen copper alloy sculptures that were unearthed in 1938 at Ife in Nigeria, the religious and former royal centre of the Yoruba people. It is believed to represent a king. It was probably made in the thirteenth-fourteenth century C.E., before any European contact had taken place with the local population. The realism and sophisticated craftsmanship of the objects challenged Western conceptions of African art at the time. A year after its finding, the Ife Head was taken to the British Museum.
The Ife Head was found in 1938 at the Wunmonije Compound, Ife, coincidentally during house building works. It was found among sixteen other brass and copper heads and the upper portion of a brass figure. A large portion of the items found in the Wunmonije Compound and neighboring regions ended up in the National Museum of Ife, however a couple of pieces left Nigeria and are now in the collections of major museums. The British Museum’s Ife Head was gained by the editor of the Daily Times of Nigeria, and the bronze sculpture eventually made its way to the National Art Collections Fund, which donated it to the museum in 1939.
The discovery of the sculptures was the spur for the government to control the export of antiquities from Nigeria. Before this was achieved, this head made its way to London via Paris and another two were sent to America. Attempts to prevent further exports, prompted by Leo Frobenius, were successfully promulgated in 1938, when legislation was enacted by the colonial authorities. Frobenius was a German ethnologist and archaeologist who was one of the first European scholars to take a serious interest in African art, especially that of the Yoruba.