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Benin's stolen bronzes

Annabelle Steffes-Halmer
March 29, 2021

A paradigm shift is emerging in the handling of looted colonial art, says historian Benedicte Savoy, comparing the change to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.

A bronze statue depicting the head of a woman wearing a conical crown
Memorial head of a queen motherImage: Staatliche Museen zu Berlin, Ethnologisches Museum/Martin Franken

Located in the southwest of present-day Nigeria, the city of Benin, with 2.5 million inhabitants, was once a flourishing trade center, famous for its valuable bronze sculptures.

The so-called Benin bronzes, which can now be found in many major European museums, hail from this once strong precolonial monarchy called the Kingdom of Benin.

Several bronzes are scheduled to be the centerpieces in a large exhibition at the opening of Berlin's new Humboldt Forum in the fall — yet it has raised questions about art restitution in the context of colonialism.

Today in Benin City, bronze is cast in exactly the same way it was 700 years ago and is a craft handed down from generation to generation. Osarugue Okundaye was born on Igun Street, the street of the Bronze Casting Guild and learned from his father.

The fact that his ancestors' works of art are outside of Nigeria fills him with deep sadness, he says: "The bronzes are very, very important to the Benins because they symbolize dignity and royalty. We look forward to the day when these arteficts that were stolen from the Benin palace will be returned."

Yet he does not remain overly hopeful, citing many broken promises from various governments over the years. 

Men in hats sit around ivory tusks and bronze statues
Sir Harry Rawson (pictured above, center) led the punitive expedition in Benin in 1897Image: CPA Media Co. Ltd/picture alliance

Benin's stolen heritage

In 1897, the British invaded the Kingdom of Benin in what is now considered a punitive expedition. They exiled the king, set fire to the city and looted thousands of art objects, including 3,500 to 4,000 bronze works. Around 1,100 of them reached Germany, where they were purchased.

Berlin owns 440 bronze pieces from Benin, making it the second-largest collection in the world. Although they were legally possessed by the Germans, many consider their presence in Berlin illegitimate due to the way they were obtained.

Shortly after the massacre of 1897, the kingdom of Benin demanded the bronzes back, to no avail. Yet, since its independence in 1960, Nigeria has been fighting to get the valuable artifacts back — so far without success. But since the beginning of 2020, there has been movement in a complex debate that has reached the top level of diplomacy: Germany's Foreign Minister, Heiko Maas, spoke out in favor of correct restitution and an honest approach to colonial history.

State Minister for Culture Monika Grütters has commissioned Hermann Parzinger, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, to develop a "strategy" for museums that own art from contexts of injustice.

Benedicte Savoy
A sensational development, says historian Benedicte SavoyImage: Thilo Rückeis/picture-alliance

A paradigm shift is on the horizon

"I think we've reached a kind of cultural collapse of the wall," Savoy said, likening the paradigm shift to the fall of Berlin Wall in November 1989. Savoy is considered one of the most important academic voices on the subject of looted art. For five years, she says, people have been hiding behind excuses; that the objects were legally acquired, and that they must be exhibited as witnesses to Europe's history. "And suddenly they're saying, 'Yeah sure, we'll give them back, we'll organize this, we'll do a conference,' and that's very new. That's electrifying."

At any rate, the Humboldt Forum is already preparing for the possibility of exhibiting without the originals: "We have to see whether it makes sense to leave holes or gaps and tie that with text … or whether it makes sense to display a plaster cast," explains Jonathan Fine, head of the Ethnological Collection at the Humboldt Forum.

"As a curator, it's very exciting to engage with global change and try to look at an exhibition not as something static, but as something that's part of the dialogue and really dares to engage the public in change as it happens."

Benin City's National Museum
The National Museum in Benin CityImage: DW/Katrin Gänsler

Who gives back what to whom?

But is change actually happening? The 440 bronzes do not actually belong to the Humboldt Forum, but to the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation. The latter has signaled that restitution should be "considered as an option," but, ultimately, the question remains to whom the art treasures should be returned: To the royal palace? To the Nigerian state, the National Museum in Benin City or to the new Museum of West African Art, which is to be built in Benin City by 2024 and for which Andreas Görgen, head of the cultural department of the Foreign Ministry, is to establish a cooperation between museums? 

The "Benin Dialogue Group," in which German museum officials work together with representatives of Nigeria has also come under criticism. In a press release dated March 27, 2021, Yusuf Tuggar, Nigeria's ambassador to Germany, criticized the work of the group, which has been striving for dialogue since 2010.

"It has been going on for so long now and nothing has happened and it seems to be gravitating more towards loans and which is totally unacceptable at the Nigerian side, because you can't lend someone. Let's say you break into their house, you steal their watch, and then you sell it onto a pawnshop. And whoever gets it from the pawn shop after the police come says, OK, well, I will lend it to him to go to a wedding with it. And then he gives it back to me. See, I mean, this is not rule of law. This is not good governance," Tuggar told DW. He also called for the return not only of the Benin bronzes, but also of the Ife bronzes found in the 1930s in the Nigerian town of Ife, as well as other works of art from the Nok culture.

Symbol of colonial humiliation

The highly emotional discussion is about much more than the mere return of art treasures. The bronzes have become a symbol of colonial humiliation. Even more, for some they are evidence of the persistence of colonial structures.

Congolese activist Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza made headlines in the summer of 2020 when he stole an African totem pole from Paris' Musee du Quai Branly and shared his actions on social media. He subsequently had to appear in court in Paris, but got away with a €1,000 ($1,177) fine, which was perhaps a somewhat symbolic punishment intended to deter copycats. 

Gallery owner Oyenike Monica Okunaye: "We artists have to create new things!"
Oyenike Monica Okunay, dressed in a modern variation of traditional clothing, smiles and raises her left handImage: Oyenike Monica Okundaye

Diyabanza offered a fresh voice and perspective. This time, it wasn't a politician, a scientist or a museum representative, but a Congolese man living in Paris who spoke on behalf of the African diaspora.

In an interview with DW, Diyabanza explains that he and his pan-African group "Unity, Dignity and Courage" are also planning actions in Germany. "The German public is divided on the restitution issue. There are many who no longer want to be associated with these heinous crimes," the activist said. 

Nigeria's vibrant art scene

Diyabanza is not alone in his desire for a fresh start. Nigerian artist Oyenike Monica Okundaye also wants closure with the past, albeit in a very different way than Diyabanza or Ambassador Tuggar.

"We don't need the works back. If they are in European museums, we want our children who cannot come back to live in Nigeria to also have a memory of them and see them where they are living," says Okundaye, who runs the region's largest art gallery in Lagos. More than 5,000 Nigerian artists have exhibited with her.

Works such as the bronzes, she says, "represent our spirit and our country in every museum." She says it's important to see new works Nigerian artists are creating these days.

As for Berlin's Benin bronzes, it remains to be seen how this decades-long dispute over reparations and identity will play out — and how long it will take before a decision is made.