Germany returns Benin bronzes: a step that is overdue

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock traveled to the West African country together with Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth. It is the largest restitution from colonial times to date. Germany had resisted this for decades.

In July, Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth, together with their Nigerian counterparts, signed a declaration on the return of the valuable Benin bronzes.

Rolf Zöllner / Imago

“Not a gesture, but a piece of justice.” This is how Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock commented on the return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria after decades of negotiations. Even if this “won’t heal all the wounds of the past”, the coming to terms with colonial injustice opens a new chapter of deepened cooperation, said the Green politician.

Baerbock, together with Minister of State for Culture Claudia Roth, returned the first 20 Benin bronzes in Nigeria on Tuesday. They were accompanied on their trip to the West African country by a delegation of museum directors and members of the Bundestag. It is the first step in returning looted art that has been on display in German museums for more than 120 years.

The Nigerian government had been campaigning for the return of the looted artworks since the 1970s. Until recently, German institutions had blocked it.

In Benin City, the capital of Edo state, a museum is to be built in which the valuable works of art will be on display. So far, however, only the building site that Minister of State for Culture Roth visited has been completed. Edo was the center of the once influential Kingdom of Benin.

In 1897 the Kingdom of Benin was conquered by British soldiers and then plundered. The Benin bronzes are valuable metal plaques and sculptures from the 16th to 18th centuries. They once adorned the royal palace. The looters sold them to auction houses, which sold them on to museums, or to private collectors. So far, more than 1100 of the Benin bronzes from the royal palace have been in around twenty German museums, most of them in the Berlin Ethnological Museum.

Benin bronzes were considered status symbols for looters

Baerbock and Roth now returned, among other things, a miniature ivory mask that had once been stolen from the king’s bedchamber. It is considered one of the most valuable of the objects. Altar stools, commemorative heads and pieces of jewelry were also returned to their original locations.

In July, Baerbock and Roth, along with their Nigerian counterparts, signed a memorandum of understanding giving Nigeria ownership of the artworks. A large part of the bronzes should be allowed to remain in German museums as loans. According to the agreement, Nigerian museums will in future decide which of the bronzes from Germany will be lent and how they will be presented.

For example, numerous bronzes are on display in the newly opened Humboldt Forum in Berlin. “A process has developed in our society. We cannot set any conditions for the return,” said Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which also includes the Humboldt Forum. He is counting on cooperation with Nigeria.

Around 5000 Benin bronzes are said to be in European museums. Because of their exoticism and craftsmanship, they were considered status symbols for the looters. In the museums, they stand as examples of the era of colonial art looted.

Start of returns from European museums

“After France handed over 26 works of art to the Republic of Benin last year, Germany is now rightly sending an international signal for the restitution of stolen cultural assets from Africa,” says CDU member of the Bundestag Thomas Rachel. “The return of the Benin bronzes symbolizes a change in awareness in dealing with looted art from the Global South.”

Several museums from France and Great Britain have meanwhile – under public pressure – returned Benin bronzes. But there has never been such an extensive restitution as in Germany.

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