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A Benin Bronze held in the collection of Berlin’s Bode Museum. Photo: Richard Mortel/Flickr.

Germany to Return Benin Bronzes to Nigeria Beginning in 2022

Germany has promised to return its trove of looted artworks known as the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria beginning in 2022. Some five hundred of the more than 90,000 brass, bronze, and ivory objects stolen by British soldiers in 1897 from the Republic of Benin (now Nigeria) are held in the collection of Berlin’s Ethnologisches Museum at the Humboldt Forum, with still more in the possession of more than twenty other museums across the country.

“We want to contribute to understanding and reconciliation with the descendants of those whose cultural treasures were stolen during colonization,” German cultural minister Monika Grütters acknowledged Thursday. In an attempt to coordinate the return of the purloined objects to Nigeria, Grütters that day met with her counterparts from four German states and the chiefs of ethnological museums in Berlin, Cologne, Hamburg, Leipzig, Stuttgart, all of which hold Benin Bronzes in their collections.

“We are facing up to our historical and moral responsibility to illuminate and come to terms with Germany’s colonial past,” said Grütters in a statement. “The way we handle the Benin bronzes is a touchstone for this. We are aiming for as much transparency as possible and above all, substantial restitutions.”

The Humboldt Forum had already begun to make plans to return its share of the bronzes. Now it has been determined that government and museum heads, acting in coordination, will discuss the restitution process with Nigerian authorities, with whom they hope to reach an agreement regarding future display of the bronzes in Germany. In the meantime, Contact Point for Collections from Colonial Contexts, an organization acting under the aegis of Germany’s Cultural Foundation of the States, will by June 15 publish online details of all the Benin bronzes in German museums. The museums, for their part, have agreed to provide comprehensive provenance information for each object by year-end.

German foreign minister Heiko Maas cited the coordinated effort between the government and the institutions as a “turning point,” saying, “Even if there are still a few steps to be taken, the government, states, and museums are now all pulling together and we will find solutions together with our Nigerian partners.”

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