Declaration of intent: Germany wants to return Benin bronzes

Nigeria and Germany have signed a declaration of intent for the return of the art treasures. Some of the works stolen by the British in the 19th century are to remain on loan in German museums.

Benin bronzes here in an exhibition in the Hamburg Museum of Arts and Crafts.

Daniel Bockwoldt / DPA

It is a historic moment for Nigeria: for decades, the West African country fought for the return of its stolen art treasures. After France returned 26 objects stolen from the Kingdom of Benin on November 10, 2021, Germany followed on Friday with a declaration of intent.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth signed a declaration to this effect together with Nigerian Minister of Culture Lai Mohammed and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zubairo Dada. This clears the way for the transfer of ownership of the Benin bronzes. These are around 1100 artistic pieces from the palace of the former Kingdom of Benin, which today belongs to Nigeria as the Edo state. They can be found in around 20 German museums. The largest collection with around 400 works of art is in Berlin.

In the future, the Nigerian side is to decide which objects are to be returned to Nigeria and what – then on loan – can remain in museums in Germany and be shown further. The works of art include detailed 16th-century sculptures, historical objects such as hairpins or altarpieces, as well as sculptures and reliefs made of bronze, brass, ivory, coral and wood.

The artworks had been stolen from the Palace of the Kingdom of Benin by the British Army in 1897. The pre-colonial royal palace was burned to the ground and the city of Benin was also destroyed. At the beginning of the 20th century, the works of art that were stolen ended up in auctions in London, among other places, in Germany, which secured the second-largest collection in the world.

Museums want to return works of art quickly

A new museum is being built in Benin City in Nigeria to house the artworks. The return of the art treasures is of exceptional importance for the country, because it allows it to make its own decisions about its history.

After the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, the most extensive collections in Germany are the Linden Museum in Stuttgart, the Museum am Rothenbaum (Hamburg), the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum (Cologne) and the Ethnographic Museum in Dresden/Leipzig. So far, these five houses are involved in the planned transfer of ownership and have already taken steps to return the art objects. The objects should be “returned to Nigeria as quickly as possible,” said the President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Hermann Parzinger. He spoke of a “completely new dimension of cooperation” with Nigeria. Because some of the works of art should remain on loan in Germany in the long term.

Negotiations for the return of the Benin bronzes were lengthy. Political leaders and museums in Germany had avoided talks about concrete agreements for decades. The restitution of looted art from Africa was generally discussed controversially. One problem is that provenance research only started late and the situation of African art in German museums has to be viewed in a differentiated manner.

Last year, representatives of the federal government, Nigeria and the museums announced the retransfer of ownership of the Benin bronzes. “The return of cultural assets cannot heal the wounds of the brutal colonial rule, but it is a first step towards a new approach to dealing with the past, which has been largely ignored up to now,” emphasized Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth a few days ago.

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