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Germany returns Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

July 2, 2022

After a century of restitution claims, Germany is transferring ownership of 1,130 bronzes to Nigeria. A groundbreaking step in the return of looted art.

an animal figure sculpted in ivory.
Not all Benin Bronzes are actually made of bronze: The courtly works of art were also made of brass, ivory, coral and woodImage: Benjamin Bischof/DW

"It's a historic moment for us, for our two countries, that we are now signing an agreement for the return of the Benin Bronzes," Abba Isa Tijani, director of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), told DW ahead of the ceremony on Friday.

The Nigerian commission has played a key role in drafting the restitution agreement signed in Berlin on July 1 by Germany's Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Commissioner for Culture and the Media Claudia Roth, Nigeria's Minister of Culture Lai Mohammed and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zubairo Dada.

"I would like to express my gratitude to the trailblazing German government as the first European country in history to ever enter into a formal agreement to return all properties of the colonial past to their rightful owners. You have set the standards of what reconciliation should look like. It is my hope that other European countries who still possess such artifacts of ours will enter into your footsteps," Dada said.

The contract officially transfers ownership of the Benin Bronzes held by German museum collections to Nigeria, with immediate effect. 

"This is the known single largest repatriation of artifacts anywhere in the world. The president, government and people of Nigeria and especially the Oba of Benin, Oba Ewuare II are very happy and grateful to the federal government of Germany for making it possible," said Lai Mohammed.

The Benin Bronzes are coming home!

Five German museums involved in restitution

In all, there are more than 1,130 artifacts from the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, the Berlin Humboldt Forum, the Cologne Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum, the Hamburg Museum for World Cultures and the State Ethnographic Collections of Saxony.

The valuable artifacts — sculptures and reliefs made of bronze and brass, as well as works made of ivory, coral and wood — were stolen from the former Kingdom of Benin by the British in a brutal punitive expedition in 1897. The royal palace from pre-colonial times was razed to the ground, and Benin City, in what is now south-western Nigeria, was almost completely destroyed.

A historic photo of British colonialists posing among looted artifacts, Benin Bronzes and elephant tusks.
Admiral Sir Harry Rawson (center) led the punitive expeditionImage: CPA Media Co. Ltd/picture alliance

At the beginning of the 20th century, many of the stolen works of art were auctioned in London, with Germany securing the second-largest collection in the world.

The former Kingdom of Benin tried once to reclaim the bronzes 100 years ago — without success.

African intellectuals took up the fight again in the 1970s, but their demands fell on deaf ears in Europe.

It was French President Emmanuel Macron's visit to Burkina Faso in 2018 that marked a turning point: the French President announced that France would be returning its colonial art treasures and commissioned a report on how to achieve this.

An ancient bronze sculpture of a head with a pointed hat.
The queen heads, such as the one seen in this picture, are particularly impressiveImage: Benjamin Bischof/DW

The report made waves in Germany. For Nanette Snoep, the fact that Nigeria and Germany are now coming to an agreement after protracted negotiations means that "history is now really being written."

"If the return and transfer of ownership of the Benin Bronzes succeeds now, then that really is the beginning of the decolonization of the so-called ethnographic bronzes museums," Snoep, who is the head of the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum, told DW. "This transfer of ownership is incredibly important, almost more important than the physical return."

From now on, Nigeria will decide how to deal with these objects and also how to talk about them: "It's about returning history and it's about a new narration of history," she added.

Icons of looted art

Nanette Snoep smiling.
Nanette Snoep has been an advocate of restitution for nearly two decadesImage: Benjamin Bischof/DW

Every major museum in the Global North with collections from the Global South has at least one Benin Bronze: "These are the Warhols, these are the Rembrandts, the Dürers of the so-called ethnographic museums," said Snoep.

The fact that these "icons" of looted art are now being returned clears the way for "a new ethic in the field of international cooperation."

"It's about finally giving space to talk about colonial trauma, about broken or shattered memories."

However, a specific date for the "physical return" of the Benin Bronzes has not yet been set: "It won't happen overnight," said the director of Nigeria's National Commission of Museums and Monuments, Abba Isa Tijani. Transport, packaging, insurance, preservation and many other technical aspects have to be regulated first, he explained.

The bronzes are to be exhibited in various state institutions and museums, in galleries and in the rebuilt royal palace, which is to be inhabited by descendants of the once expelled king of Benin City.

The Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA), originally planned for the Benin Bronzes, is still under construction, and it is unclear when it will be completed, explained Tijani.

Sculpted relief depicting a king.
In the Kingdom of Benin, the king was traditionally called 'Oba'Image: Benjamin Bischof/DW

In Nigeria and especially in Benin City, the anticipation couldn't be greater: "We are really happy with the return of Benin artifacts. It means a lot. Our heritage, our cultural assets that have been stolen years ago, have been returned to their rightful owner, the Kingdom of Benin," said Friday Osaro, a resident of the former royal city.

Godwin Obaseki, governor of the state of Edo, where the former kingdom is now located, agrees: "The idea of ​​bringing these items home is not only important to our identity; they are a part of us. We can have them here and the world can come to us and see what we have created."

Some Benin Bronzes to remain on loan in Germany

Not all Benin Bronzes will return to Nigeria; some will remain in Germany on loan.

Abba Isa Tijani, director of Nigeria's National Commission of Museums and Monuments
Abba Isa Tijani, director of Nigeria's National Commission of Museums and Monuments: 'Partnership is key'Image: Benjamin Bischof/DW

Joint exhibitions with museums around the world are also planned. Tijani aims to focus on partnerships with museums as global institutions. "We don't want it to be just a return," he said.

The Nigerian commission is seeking to involve the large African diaspora in Europe: "When these objects go back to Nigeria, we are talking about a period of over 100 years that these objects have been outside the country," said Tijani. He believes that it is important to keep telling the stories of the journey of these objects, and of the communities and countries where they spent the past century.

Not only Germany is beginning to restitute cultural assets from colonial times. Most recently, the Glasgow Museum in Scotland returned 19 artifacts to Nigeria. The Smithsonian in the United States has restituted 29 pieces, and the National Gallery of Art in Washington has also agreed to repatriate objects from its collections.

This article was originally written in German.

Correction, July 4, 2022: A previous version of this article named the wrong location for Benin City; it has been corrected to state that it is in today's south-western Nigeria. We apologize for the error.