On July 1st, 2022, Nigeria and Germany reached a deal for the return of over 1,000 Benin Bronzes to their roots. These artefacts are part of the collection of historical metal plaques and sculptures stolen by British soldiers who sacked Benin City 125 years ago.
In 1897, a British force of 1,200 soldiers attacked Benin City after locals killed British members of a previous expedition party to the ancient city. The vengeful British force came to steal, kill and destroy the prosperous Benin Kingdom. But they didn’t stop there; they also looted the Oba of Benin’s palace of all its valuables. British soldiers stole thousands of Benin Bronzes and shipped them off abroad where many of them remain today, 125 years later.
Why’s Germany returning its collection of stolen art?
First, it’s not simply the fear of God.
The advocacy for the return of stolen art has gained momentum over the past decade. Colonial spoils of war still being displayed in foreign museums have started to become an ugly reminder of their past. Benin Bronzes are some of the most prominent poster faces for the campaign that has hit the art industry to return stolen property.
Germany wasn’t directly involved in the looting of Benin, yet hundreds of artefacts ended up there through trade and donations. But the European giant is one of the first to admit the shame of the Benin expedition and actively attempt to correct course by returning them to their home country, Nigeria.
The return of the artefacts is a joint effort between the German government and museums that are housing the Benin Bronzes. The museums are members of a multilateral group known as the Benin Dialogue Group. The group’s main objective is the cultural restitution of stolen West African art. The Benin Dialogue Group was established in 2007 and includes other European museums, the Nigerian government and the Royal Court of Benin.
How significant is this deal?
Global institutions including in the United Kingdom and the United States of America have been gradually returning their collections of Benin Bronzes and other Nigerian artefacts over the past few years.
Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, described the July 1st deal as the “single largest repatriation of artefacts anywhere in the world.” What the return of Germany’s haul does is put additional pressure on other institutions and countries that can be doing better to soften the blow of a horrendous crime committed 125 years ago.
The biggest beneficiary of the Benin heist remains the British Museum which still houses the largest and most valuable collection of Benin artefacts. Yet, it remains reluctant to take a progressive stand on the return of the artefacts to Nigeria where they were stolen.
The Nigerian government wrote an official demand to the museum in October 2021 requesting the return of the artefacts. The museum’s response?
The British Museum’s most innovative compromise in the past is the suggestion to loan the artefacts back to Nigeria on a temporary basis.
The German deal is a good pressure point to force the conversation of complete reparation with the British Museum and other global institutions still holding out.
In the words of the German foreign minister, Annalena Baerbock, “This is a beginning to right the wrong.”
What’ll happen to these Benin Bronzes?
The returning artefacts will be displayed in museums being built or renovated in Nigeria. For example, in 2019, the Benin Dialogue Group, pledged to support the construction of the Edo Museum of West African Art (EMOWAA) in Nigeria. The project is led by the Legacy Restoration Trust (LRT), a Nigerian nonprofit organisation, in partnership with the British Museum.
The EMOWAA project seeks to reunite Benin artworks currently scattered all over the world, and the German deal will be remembered as one of its pivotal moments. Maybe the British Museum will read the room and take a cue.
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