Germany on Friday returned two of the priceless artifacts, known as the Benin Bronzes, to Nigeria after reaching a political agreement that would soon allow hundreds more to return to the country from which they were looted more than 100 years ago.
The return of the two artifacts – a king’s head known as an oba, dating to the 18th century, and an intricately designed 16th-century plaque – happened when the culture ministers of Germany and Nigeria met in Berlin to present a signing an agreement that paved the way for the African country to take ownership of the approximately 1,100 Benin Bronzes currently in German museums.
Once ownership has been transferred, it will be up to the Nigerian authorities to decide which artifacts to return and which to keep in German museums as cultural ambassadors for Nigeria.
Andreas Goergen, a German official who helped negotiate the agreement, said at a news conference that if Nigeria ever requests an item back in the future, it will be sent.
The Benin Bronzes are a series of several thousand intricate artifacts that, despite their name, are usually made of brass and include carved elephant tusks and ivory leopard statues. They come from the ancient kingdom of Benin, now in southern Nigeria, and the most famous items are a series of copper plates, once nailed to pillars in the kingdom’s main palace.
In 1897, British troops looted thousands of bronze statues during a violent raid on Benin City, and the artifacts were soon scattered in museums around the world.
Over the past five years, there has been growing momentum to return the bronzes and other artifacts looted during colonialism to their countries of origin, especially after France’s President Emmanuel Macron said bringing artifacts back from Africa’s heritage to the continent was “a top priority”. European museums have led the way in those discussions, but some organizations in the United States have acted as well. In March, the Smithsonian Institution said it would return most of its 39 bronze statues to Nigeria, at the institution’s expense.
The German government said in April 2021 it planned to return “significant” numbers of the bronze artifacts to Nigeria, while last fall it said it wanted to transfer ownership of all looted artifacts to that country. Friday’s announcement formalized those promises.
Given Germany’s complex political structure, the states and cities overseeing the museums must now pass legislation confirming the transfer of ownership, but Goergen said he expected it to be completed “in the very near future.” Some authorities, such as that of Baden-Württemberg, the region with the Linden ethnographic museum in Stuttgart, have already passed resolutions for their return.
Many of the bronzes will likely end up in a new museum planned for Benin City, the Edo Museum of West African Art. Phillip Ihenacho, a financier who is leading the effort to raise money for that project, said in a telephone interview that Friday’s agreement was “a significant achievement.” Letting Nigeria decide the future of the bronze was “a fundamentally different relationship to what we had before,” he added.
Ihenacho said work on the museum has yet to begin, but he hoped construction on a pavilion to store and display returned items would begin in August and be completed by the end of 2023.
With Friday’s announcement, attention is likely to shift to British museums. Last year, Nigeria requested its antiquities from the British Museum in London, which has some 900 Benin Bronzes in its collections. The National Commission on Museums and Monuments of Nigeria has made similar requests to other museums, including the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which has 94 bronzes in its collections and whose governing body said in March it supports the return of the items.
Several British museums are part of a network called the Benin Dialogue Group, which planned to send bronze statues back to Nigeria in a rotating series of loans, but Germany’s move shows how that is being overtaken.