1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Germany returns looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria

Stuart Braun | Rosalia Romaniec
December 20, 2022

At a "historic" repatriation ceremony in the Nigerian capital, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and other officials returned 20 stolen Benin Bronzes to their homeland.

A Benin Bronze in a glass case
The Benin Bronzes are finally going homeImage: Jan Woitas/dpa/picture alliance

"Today, we are here to return the Benin Bronzes to where they belong, to the people of Nigeria," said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock during Tuesday's official handover in the Nigerian capital, Abuja.

"We are here to right a wrong," she added.

The repatriation of 20 prized bronzes that were looted by British colonialists in 1897 and sold to museums worldwide was described as "a historic day" by Culture Minister Claudia Roth, also in Abuja. "We want to return what never belonged to us," she said.

The treasures are a small part of 1,130 stolen artifacts held in several museums around Germany. The objects, made of bronze, ivory and other precious materials, are among the most important artworks created on the African continent.

"Twenty years ago, even 10 years ago, nobody could have anticipated these bronzes returning to Nigeria, because the obstacles to achieving repatriation were seemingly insurmountable," said Alhaji Lai Mohammed, Nigeria's minister of information and culture, during a welcome speech at the handover. "But today, with the pioneering gesture of a friendly nation, Germany, the story has changed."

"This act of restitution stands for the recognition of the injustice of a colonial past, which appropriated stolen treasures," Roth told DW. Handing back the bronzes was also an attempt to "give back the cultural identity that we have stolen."

Nigeria will celebrate the arrival of the first bronzes with a major exhibition featuring the artifacts in early 2023. The exhibition will allow "Nigerians to see the returned objects," said Abba Isa Tijani, director general of Nigeria's National Commission for Museums and Monuments. "Part of our history is returning, part of our identity."

"It's really a huge emotional moment for me," he added.

Bronzes 'a part of who you are': Baerbock

"Art lives in history and history lives in art," said Baerbock in her speech during the repatriation ceremony, quoting Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie.

"Art informs who we are. Art shapes how we perceive ourselves and how we perceive the world," she added. "That's why we are not returning mere objects to you, to the Nigerian people, today. We have learned from you: what we are returning is a part of your history, a part of who you are."

The repatriated objects were kept in museums in Berlin, Hamburg, Cologne, Dresden, Leipzig and Stuttgart. In June, the museums first transferred the rights of ownership of all Benin Bronzes. However, some agreements include loan deals so items can be further displayed in Germany before being returned.

Last week, the City of Cologne symbolically handed back 92 items as Abba Isa Tijani and Yusuf Maitama Tuggar, Nigeria's ambassador to Germany, began to travel throughout Germany to collect the first batch of Benin Bronzes.

A man wearing a hat receives a bronze key from a woman in a deep navy suit
At last week's ceremony in Cologne, Nigerian museums head Abba Isa Tijani received a bronze key symbolizing the Benin Bronzes from Cologne Mayor Henriette RekerImage: dpa

Restitution addresses a dark colonial past

At Tuesday's official restitution event Abuja, Baerbock reiterated the need for Germany to address its role in colonial looted art and its failure to return these objects earlier. 

"Officials from my country once bought the bronzes, knowing they had been robbed and stolen," she said. "After that, we ignored Nigeria's plea to return them for a very long time. It was wrong to take them and it was wrong to keep them."

"This is a story of European colonialism," she added. "It is a story, in which our country played a dark role, causing tremendous suffering in different parts of Africa."

Colorfully dressed people sit on a mat in from of a stone house with blue doors
During her mission to restitute colonial looted art, Baerbock visited a family in a village that was destroyed by the terrorist group Boko HaramImage: Florian Gaertner/photothek/picture alliance

Germany to support new Benin Bronzes museum

Nigeria is planning to build a modern museum to exclusively exhibit and store the Benin Bronzes.

Culture Minister Roth said the restitution is also "a prerequisite for the fact that we speak, here and now, about modern art, about cooperation between museums and create common plans so we can help in building a new campus and promote archaeological work."

Germany will support the museum with financial help, cooperation and joint archaeological excavations.

This article was originally written in German.

Philipp Jedicke and Sabine Oelze contributed to this article.

Stuart Braun | DW Reporter
Stuart Braun Berlin-based journalist with a focus on climate and culture.
Rosalia Romaniec
Rosalia Romaniec Head of Current Politics/Hauptstadtstudio News and Current Affairs@RosaliaRomaniec