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Critics fear Benin Bronzes could be privatized by royal heir

Nikolas Fischer
May 8, 2023

Nigeria's President Muhammadu Buhari has given the Benin Bronzes restituted by Germany to Oba Ewuare II, the head of Benin's former royal family. Germany stands by the decision to restitute the sculptures.

A Benin Bronze, anicent African mask.
One of the Benin Bronzes in Cologne's Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum collectionImage: Oliver Berg/dpa/picture alliance

"It was wrong to take them, and it was wrong to keep them," Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said while visiting Abuja, the capital of Nigeria, on December 20, 2022.

Baerbock, along with Germany's Commissioner for Culture and the Media, Claudia Roth, made the visit to return the first of 20 Benin Bronzes which were once looted from the west African region.

The artworks had been in Germany for 125 years, along with around 1,100 looted artifacts from the palace of the former kingdom of Benin, which is now in present-day Nigeria.

The objects made of bronze, ivory and other precious materials, are among the most important works of art on the African continent. Most of them were stolen by British colonialists around the year 1897.

Yet recent developments have some wondering if the Nigerian public will ever be able to view the returned bronzes in a museum — and if it even matters.

Claudia Roth and Annalena Baerbock with Nigeria's Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama and Minister of Culture Lai Mohammed who holds a small sculpture
From left to right: Claudia Roth and Annalena Baerbock with Nigeria's Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama and Minister of Culture Lai MohammedImage: Florian Gaertner/photothek/IMAGO

Giving the bronzes back to royalty

Several African and international media have reported that Nigeria's outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari has since transferred the bronzes to Oba Ewuare II, the current head of the former royal family of the Benin Empire.

A presidential decree was issued on March 23 stating the artworks, and subsequently returned works, will be given to Oba Ewuare II. Some worry that it could change plans for the returned artworks to be housed in institutions like the Edo Museum of West African Art, which will be opened in stages starting in 2024.

Several metal sculptures, including one in the likeness of a man sit on a table
These pieces were already returned in December 2022Image: Annette Riedl/dpa/picture alliance

In Germany, the handover was given extra attention when Swiss scholar Brigitta Hauser-Schäublin wrote an opinion piece for the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper in which she questioned the decision. "Was that the point of restitution?" Hauser-Schäublin wrote, also calling it a "fiasco." The scholar criticized the German government for making an agreement with Nigerian authorities that was too "lightly worded."

On March 23, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari announced that all restated artworks from the former kingdom of Benin would be given to the Oba of Benin, who is by right the original owner and custodian of the culture, heritage and tradition of the former Kingdom of Benin. This applies "both to artifacts that have already been returned and to those that have not yet been returned" according to Buhari. What Ewuare II does with the items is his decision.

People standing on stage, including Oba Ewuare II (center).
Oba Ewuare II (with orange headwear) is shown here receiving two artifacts returned from England after 125 yearsImage: Tife Owolabi/REUTERS

The artworks could therefore be exhibited in his private palace museum, making it unclear whether they would ever be on display to the Nigerian public. It's also unclear whether or Ewuare II could sell the works to collectors.

Berlin stands by its decision

The German government, however, does not question the restitution of the artworks, regardless of where they end up. "The right thing to do is still to return looted art to the places that today represent the people and culture from which this art was once stolen," a spokesman for State Minister of Culture Claudia Roth told German news agency dpa on May 7. Roth said she would work with the German Foreign Office to better understand what the outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari's decision means for future restitutions. "To this end, we want to hold talks with the new Nigerian government as soon as it is in office," Roth's spokesperson said.

Germany's Foreign Office expressed a similar sentiment: "Whoever will receive the returned bronzes, which Nigerian institutions and persons will be involved, and where the responsibility for preservation and accessibility lies, are questions that will be decided in Nigeria," it said in Berlin on Sunday. "There were no conditions attached to the return of the bronzes to Nigeria."

The process "does not call into question the transfer of ownership back to Nigeria," Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, said. It was "based on the fact that it was a case of violent looting — this context of injustice was always undisputed," Parzinger told dpa. He stressed Nigeria's autonomy, adding that the government was "of course free to decide how to deal with these objects." 

Two statues of faces made of bronye in a display case in a Hamburg museum exhibition in 2021
Benin Bronzes are held in 20 museums across GermanyImage: Daniel Reinhardt/dpa/picture alliance

Not a surprising handover

It's also not the first time artifacts have been handed over to the Oba of Benin. In early 2022, the Nigerian president gave Ewuare II two artifacts returned by England.

"This restitution stands for the recognition of the injustice of a colonial past that has made looted property its own," Claudia Roth, Minister of State for Culture said in an interview with DW. The restitution would hopefully also close open wounds, "because we are also giving back to some extent the cultural identity that we stole."

As for whether or not the Nigerian public would see the Benin Bronzes, Hermann Parzinger of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation was optimistic, saying that he had no doubt that the works would be available to the public in a museum. In addition, a third of the artifacts currently in Germany's collection would be on long-term loan to the Humboldt Forum in Berlin.

This article was originally written in German.