Germany and Nigeria have signed an agreement that paves the way for the return of hundreds of artefacts known as the Benin Bronzes that were looted and removed from Africa more than 120 years ago – an accord that Nigerian officials hope will prompt other countries to follow suit.
A British colonial expedition looted vast quantities of treasures in 1897 from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southwestern Nigeria, including numerous bas-reliefs and sculptures.
The artefacts ended up spread far and wide. Hundreds were sold to collections such as the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, which has one of the world’s largest groups of historical objects from the Kingdom of Benin, estimated to include about 530 items, including 440 bronzes. Many of them date from the 16th to the 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 they all belong to the people of Nigeria,” German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said on Friday.
“It was wrong to take the bronzes; it was wrong to keep them for 120 years,” Baerbock said.
The bronzes “are some of Africa’s greatest treasures, but they are also telling the story of colonial violence,” she said.
Two pieces held by the Berlin museum – a commemorative head of a king and a relief slab depicting a king with four attendants – were handed over as German and Nigerian officials signed their “joint political declaration” at the German foreign ministry in Berlin on Friday.
“Germany has taken the lead in correcting the wrongs of the past,” Nigerian Culture Minister Lai Mohammed said.
He added that he expected the move to “become a harbinger of more repatriation of cultural property”.
Governments and museums in Europe and North America have increasingly sought to resolve ownership disputes over objects that were looted during colonial times.
‘Correcting the wrongs of the past’
Friday’s agreement provides for museum cooperation between Germany and Nigeria. Germany is helping Nigeria set up a new museum in Benin City where bronzes will be displayed in the future, Baerbock said.
“It is my sincere hope that other European countries … will follow in your footsteps,” Nigeria’s state minister for foreign affairs, Zubairu Dada, said of Friday’s accord.