‘The Benin Bronzes are returning home’: Germany and Nigeria sign historic restitution agreement

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The German government is powering forward with its ambitious restitution programme, signing a key agreement transferring ownership of more than 1,100 works to Nigeria. Two of the Benin bronze artefacts, a head of a king (or oba) and a 16th-century plaque, were handed over to the Nigerian representatives at a signing ceremony on 1 July.

At the ceremony in Berlin, the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, said: “The Benin bronzes are returning home… It was wrong to take the bronzes, and it was wrong to keep them for 120 years.” Nigeria’s ambassador to Germany, Yusuf Tuggar, tweeted that “it was a historic day at the signing ceremony between the governments of Germany and Nigeria for the unconditional transfer of ownership for 1,130 cultural pieces from the 1897 Benin Bronzes. Germany has set the bar high for righting colonial wrongs. New era in cultural diplomacy.”

The agreement ends decades of wrangling over bronze and ivory artefacts (“Benin bronzes” also includes objects made of brass and ivory and not only bronze) looted by the British army from what is now southern Nigeria as part of a punitive expedition in 1897. Since the 1960s, Nigeria has repeatedly called for their repatriation. Last year, the German government and the Nigerian National Commission for Museums and Monuments signed a memorandum of understanding setting out a timetable for the restitution of artefacts looted from the royal palace of Benin.

There are more than 1,000 bronzes from the former Kingdom of Benin in the storerooms and collections of 20 German museums, says a statement from the German Foreign Ministry. The first two bronzes will be taken back personally by the Nigerian Foreign Minister Zubairu Dada and Culture Minister Lai Mohammed, who were present at the ceremony.

Baerbock explained that a German Consul and businessman, Eduard Schmidt, bought the head of an oba piece a couple of weeks after the pillaging in 1897. “With him, the bronze made its way to Europe. This is a story of European colonialism. We should not forget that Germany played an active role in this chapter of history.”

The 1,100 artefacts to be returned belong to the German museums with the biggest collections of Benin bronzes: ethnological museums in Berlin, Stuttgart, Cologne, Leipzig and Hamburg. Berlin’s Ethnological Museum has the largest contingent of Benin bronzes in Europe after the British Museum.

In a joint declaration posted online, the Nigerian and German governments state: “Both sides express their political willingness for all Benin Bronzes held in German public museums and institutions to be returned.”

But not all of the disputed items will go back. “Not all bronzes in the collections of German museums will return to Nigeria immediately. The Nigerian side has declared its willingness to leave some artefacts here on loan, so that they can continue to be exhibited in Germany. This is a very special gesture of trust and of amity between the two countries,” says a statement on the German foreign ministry website.

Crucially, Germany has agreed to contribute to the construction of a new museum to house the Benin bronzes near the royal palace in Benin City, the Edo Museum of West African Art. “Both sides jointly undertake to support the establishment of museum facilities in Benin City,” says the agreement, adding that “both sides intend to facilitate the circulation of cultural objects, particularly the Benin bronzes, by collaborating on international travelling and joint exhibitions.”

Whether other countries will follow suit remains to be seen. The latest move puts the spotlight once again on the British Museum, which holds around 900 pieces from the kingdom of Benin, to return works to Nigeria. The British Museum is prohibited from permanently removing items from its collection under a 1963 UK law. It is, however, in talks with the Nigerian authorities to lend Benin objects to the planned Edo Museum of West African Art, as part of a wider coalition of European institutions known as the Benin Dialogue Group.

Earlier this year, The Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC agreed to return most of its Benin bronze collection to Nigeria as part of a major restitution agreement.

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