In a historic moment, ninety-two Benin Bronzes from Cologne’s Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum were finally returned to Nigeria. The pieces were part of the plunder taken by British troops in 1897 during what has come to be known as the Benin Massacre, in which more than 500 people were killed.
The return of the bronzes is the culmination of a decades-long effort by the Nigerian government to have the pieces repatriated. It is also a victory for the movement to return looted African art to its rightful owners.
This is a milestone in a decades-long, difficult debate about the restitution of looted art, with national and international significance, Reker said. The decision by the Dutch government to return this painting to the heirs of its original owner is an important step forward in the fight against the illicit trade in cultural property. It sets a precedent that will hopefully be followed by other countries who have also been grappling with this issue.
The British army looted the bronze sculptures in 1897 from the ruling palace of the kingdom of Benin, located in what is now Nigeria. These sculptures, dating back to the 15th and 16th centuries, are among the finest examples of Bronze Age art. Benin’s indigenous people, the Edo, had a rich culture and artistry that influenced much of West Africa. The Benin Bronzes were held in high esteem by the Edo people, who considered them to be sacred objects.
When the British looted the Benin Palace, they destroyed a key part of the Edo people’s culture and history. The Benin Bronzes are now scattered across the world, with many of them in European museums.
The 1,100 works of art that were auctioned all over Europe are now in about 20 German museums. This is a massive increase from the number of works of art that were previously in German museums, and represents a significant cultural shift in the country. The auctioning of these works of art has also resulted in a significant financial windfall for the German government, as the proceeds from the auctions have been used to fund various public projects.
This summer, Germany and Nigeria agreed on a process by which to transfer ownership of the looted objects, including repatriation of some of them. The agreement came after months of negotiations, and saw the return of some of the objects that were taken from Nigeria during the colonial period. Germany has also agreed to provide funding for the conservation of the objects that remain in Nigeria.
Three of the artworks from Cologne are to be brought back to Nigeria this month. This is part of an agreement between the Nigerian and German governments that will see 52 of the bronzes repatriated from 2023. The agreement follows years of campaigning by Nigerian activists and politicians, who have argued that the sculptures were looted during the colonial period and should be returned to their country of origin. The artworks are thought to be worth millions of dollars, and their return is seen as a victory for those who have been fighting for their repatriation.
Some 37 items will remain on loan to Cologne for an initial period of 10 years, the two sides agreed. The 10-year period will begin upon the completion of the new museum in 2025. The return of the items to Egypt will take place in 2035. The agreement includes a provision for a possible extension of the loan period for an additional five years.