A British colonial expedition looted vast amounts of treasure from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in 1897.
Germany and Nigeria have signed an agreement that paves the way for the return of hundreds of artifacts known as the Benin bronzes that were looted and removed from Africa more than 120 years ago – a deal Nigerian officials hope will be broken it encourages other countries to follow suit.
A British colonial expedition in 1897 looted large quantities of treasure from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now south-western Nigeria, including numerous bas-reliefs and sculptures.
The artifacts ended up scattered far and wide. Hundreds have been sold to collections such as the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, which has one of the world’s largest collections of historical objects from the Kingdom of Benin, estimated at around 530 objects, including 440 bronzes. Many of them date from the 16th to 18th centuries.
“This is just the beginning of more than 1,000 pieces from the Kingdom of Benin that are still in German museums and all belong to the Nigerian people,” said Federal Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock on Friday.
“It was wrong to take the bronzes; it was wrong to keep them for 120 years,” said Baerbock.
The bronzes “are among Africa’s greatest treasures, but they also tell the story of colonial violence,” she said.
Two pieces from the Berlin museum – a commemorative head of a king and a relief panel depicting a king with four attendants – were handed over when German and Nigerian officials signed their “joint political declaration” at the Foreign Office in Berlin on Friday.
“Germany has taken the lead to right the wrongs of the past,” said Nigerian Culture Minister Lai Mohammed.
He added that he expects the move to become “a harbinger of more repatriations of cultural property.”
Governments and museums in Europe and North America are increasingly attempting to resolve ownership disputes over objects looted during the colonial era.
Germany last year announced its intention to return the Benin bronzes that ended up in the country.
Officials gave no timeline for the return of the remaining artifacts, but Berlin’s Ethnological Museum said an agreement on the remaining bronzes it owns will follow later this year.
The agency that oversees the museum said it expects to keep some on long-term loan.
Baerbock said she looks forward to seeing bronzes “on holiday in Germany.”
“Correcting the Wrongs of the Past”
Friday’s agreement provides for a museum cooperation between Germany and Nigeria. Germany is helping Nigeria to set up a new museum in Benin City in which bronzes will be exhibited in the future, said Baerbock.
“I sincerely hope that other European countries … will follow in your footsteps,” Nigerian Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zubairu Dada said of Friday’s agreement.
Hundreds of objects from the Kingdom of Benin remain at the British Museum in London, which has resisted calls for their return.
“The British Museum remains committed to a thorough and open investigation of Benin’s collection histories,” the museum said in an emailed statement on Friday.
“This includes a full appreciation and understanding of colonial history, which provides the key context for the development of the museum’s Benin collections.”
The Smithsonian removed 10 Benin bronze pieces from display at its National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC and announced a new ethical returns policy this year.
Other US museums have also started talks about returning such objects, while France last year said it would return the so-called “Abomey Treasures” to Benin as part of a broader effort to right colonial injustices.
In November, France returned 26 of the treasures, while the UK returned two earlier this year, and talks of more to come continue.
Nigerian Minister of Culture Lai Mohammed thanked Germany for “taking the lead to right the wrongs of the past” and welcomed “the beginning of a new era of cooperation”.