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Cologne hands over stolen Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

December 15, 2022

Another major German city has begun giving back artwork stolen by British colonialists in the 19th century. Germany holds more than 1,000 pieces of the Benin Bronzes.

One of the Benin Bronze sculptures that was being held in Cologne
The Benin Bronzes are a collection of thousands of pieces of art, many made with bronze, but others with ivory, coral or woodImage: Julia Hinz/DW

Nigeria has taken back ownership of 92 bronze sculptures that make up the so-called Benin Bronzes from a museum in the German city of Cologne, following an agreement that was signed by the city's mayor on Thursday.

The director general of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums, Abba Isa Tijani, was in Cologne to sign the agreement with mayor Henriette Reker.

The transfer of the bronzes from the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum is the most recent in an ongoing attempt to see the artwork looted by colonial powers returned to their former homes.

"This is a milestone in a difficult debate lasting decades about the restitution of looted art, with national and international significance," Reker said.

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker handing a bronze key to Nigerian representative Abba Isa Tijani
Abba Isa Tijani has played a key role in getting stolen artwork returned to NigeriaImage: dpa

Some pieces to stay in Cologne on loan

Three of the pieces will be brought back to Nigeria this month, with 52 more to be gradually transferred from next year onwards.

The rest will remain in Cologne on loan for a period of at least 10 years, mirroring a deal made with the city of Berlin earlier in the year.

There are an estimated 1,100 Benin Bronze pieces spread across some 20 museums in Germany.

They were originally stolen by the British army in 1897 when it ransacked, and burned down, the palace of the kingdom of Benin which was located in modern-day Nigeria.

The looted pieces were then auctioned off to buyers around Europe.

Ongoing process

The gradual return of the artwork is the result of negotiations between Germany's Foreign Ministry and Culture Minister Claudia Roth with Nigerian representatives since last year.

Roth and Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock signed a restitution agreement with their Nigerian counterparts Lai Mohammed and Zubairo Dado, respectively, in July.

A Benin Bronze sculpture of a face
It is estimated that 90% of Africa's stolen artwork is being held in EuropeImage: Oliver Berg/dpa/picture alliance

The Hamburg Museum for World Cultures is set to hand over 179 pieces of stolen Nigerian art from Friday following a decision made at the end of September.

France and the UK, both with considerable stocks of stolen colonial-era art, have also begun returning, or negotiating the return of, pieces not just to Nigeria but other formerly colonized countries.

ab/msh (dpa, KNA)