Germany announces “substantial restitutions” of Benin bronzes

Germany has announced its intention to return their considerable collection of looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria in 2022. This is a landmark moment in the restitution of looted art, and Germany’s decision has made them the first country to hand back their Benin bronzes.

In a statement, federal culture minister Monika Grütters, said: “We are facing up to our historical and moral responsibility to illuminate and come to terms with Germany’s colonial past”, and that, “we are aiming for as much transparency as possible and above all, substantial restitutions.”

The Benin bronzes were looted by British soldiers during the Benin Expedition of 1897. A huge number of religious artefacts and artworks were taken, including over a thousand metal plaques and sculptures which collectively became known as the Benin Bronzes. Around 1,100 artefacts entered numerous German museums, with at least 440 in the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin. Others can be found in museums in Hamburg, Cologne, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Dresden.

The restitution of Germany’s Benin bronzes is, according to foreign minister Heiko Maas, “a turning-point in our approach to colonial history”. The decision to return the items has been facilitated by the Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT), a not-for-profit entity in Nigeria dedicated to supporting cultural heritage art and archaeological projects. The LRT is currently working alongside the British Museum and an architectural firm, Adjaye Associates, on a new major archaeological project, linked to the construction of the Edo Museum of West African Art, where the returned Benin bronzes from Germany will eventually go. In a press release, the British Museum claimed the Edo Museum of West African Art is “focussed on reuniting Benin art works currently within international collections, as well as investigating and presenting the wider histories that these represent.”

Nigerian artist and trustee of the LRT, Victor Ehikhamenor, stated that: “Germany’s bold decision to return looted classic arts from the kingdom of Benin to their rightful owners is definitely applauded and goes in the right direction.”

The need to repatriate the Benin bronzes – which are of huge cultural significance –  has been gathering pace in recent years. Last year, the Museum am Rothenbaum in Hamburg and the Benin Dialogue Group began an initiative to digitally reunite looted Benin treasures. In 2019, the University of Cambridge repatriated a bronze cockerel to Nigeria, and earlier this year the University of Aberdeen stated they would return a bronze sculpture, which had been acquired in an “extremely immoral” manner.

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