Germany returned two of the priceless artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria on Friday, after reaching a political agreement that could soon see hundreds more return to the country from which they were looted over 100 years ago.
The return of the two artifacts — a head of a king, known as an oba, dating from the 18th century, and an intricately designed 16th-century plaque — happened as Germany’s and Nigeria’s culture ministers met in Berlin to sign an agreement paving the way for the African country to take ownership of the some 1,100 Benin Bronzes currently in Germany’s museums.
Once ownership is transferred, it will be up to Nigerian authorities to decide which artifacts they want back, and which they want kept in German museums as cultural ambassadors for Nigeria.
Andreas Goergen, a German official who helped negotiate the agreement, said in a news conference that, in the future, if Nigeria ever asks for an item back, “it will be shipped.”
The Benin Bronzes are a set of several thousand intricate artifacts that, despite their name, are mostly 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 brass plaques, which were once nailed to pillars in the kingdom’s main palace.
In 1897, British forces looted thousands of the bronzes during a violent raid of Benin City, and soon the items were scattered across museums around the world.
Over the past five years, there has been growing momentum to return the bronzes and other items looted under colonialism to their countries of origin, especially after President Emmanuel Macron of France said returning items from Africa’s heritage to the continent was “a top priority.” European museums have been at the forefront of those discussions, but some organizations in the United States have acted, too. In March, the Smithsonian Institution said it would return most of its 39 bronzes to Nigeria, shipping them at the institution’s expense.
The German government said in April 2021 that it intended to return “substantial” numbers of the bronzes to Nigeria, while last fall it said it wanted to transfer ownership of all looted items to that country. Friday’s announcement formalized those promises.
Given Germany’s complex political structure, the states and cities that oversee its museums now have to pass legislation confirming the ownership transfer, but Goergen said he expected that will be completed “in the very close future.” Some authorities like Baden-Württemberg’s, the region that includes Stuttgart’s Linden ethnographical museum, have already passed resolutions for their return.
Many of the bronzes are likely to end up in a new museum planned for Benin City, called the Edo Museum of West African Art. Phillip Ihenacho, a financier leading efforts to raise money for that project, said in a telephone interview that Friday’s agreement was “a significant achievement.” Having Nigeria decide the bronzes’ future was “a fundamentally different relationship to what we had before,” he added.
Ihenacho said work had yet to start on the museum, but he hoped construction of 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 will likely shift to Britain’s museums. Last year, Nigeria requested its antiquities back from the British Museum in London, which has some 900 Benin Bronzes in its collections. Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments 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 returning the items.
Several British museums are part of a network called the Benin Dialogue Group, which planned to send bronzes back to Nigeria in a rotating series of loans, but the movement by Germany shows how that is being superseded.