Looted art: Germany wants to transfer all Benin bronzes to Nigeria

Updated on October 15, 2021, 3:21 p.m.

  • Germany wants to return ownership of looted art from colonial times to Nigeria.
  • The ornate Benin bronzes are currently at the center of heated debates about returns.
  • In Germany, the participating museums are now discussing how this can be implemented in the various federal states.

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With an unprecedented step, Germany wants to transfer ownership of the Benin bronzes, which are considered looted goods from the colonial era, to the Nigerian negotiating partners. In a memorandum of understanding, the key points for this were signed by representatives of both sides in the Nigerian capital Abuja. In addition, “substantial returns” are also planned. Details are expected to be agreed at the next meeting in December, as the German Press Agency in Berlin learned from the negotiating delegation.

The ornate Benin bronzes are currently at the center of heated debates about returns. Most of the objects come from the British looting in 1897. They are works of art from the palace of what was then the Kingdom of Benin. Around 1100 bronzes can be found in numerous German museums, and they are also to be shown in the Berlin Humboldt Forum. The most important holdings can be found in the Linden-Museum (Stuttgart), the Museum am Rothenbaum (Hamburg), the Rautenstrauch-Joest-Museum (Cologne), the Ethnographic Museums in Dresden / Leipzig and the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.

The declaration of intent was signed by the German delegation and Nigerian representatives on Wednesday in Abuja, said the West African country’s information and culture minister, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, on Thursday. “The German government and the German people have taken a courageous step by declaring their willingness to return the artifacts voluntarily and without great coercion on the part of Nigeria,” said the minister.

Andreas Görgen, head of the department responsible for cultural policy, led the talks on behalf of the Foreign Office. “We wanted to prepare the way for a new federal government, so that an agreement can then be reached at the political level on the schedule, the question of regulating the objects and the support we want to provide in the large field of cooperation that goes from archeology to the training of museum managers and possible investments in cultural infrastructure to returns, “said Görgen of the dpa.

Objects should continue to be shown in Germany

“We agree that the process leading to returns should begin in the second quarter of next year with the transfer of ownership of the objects.” In addition, there is agreement with all Nigerian sites that everyone is interested in continuing to show objects in Germany. “That was also a Nigerian wish.” The collaboration should not only relate to restitution and circulation, but should also include collaboration in archeology, engagement in the cultural infrastructure and training of museum managers.

From the point of view of Hermann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, to which the Ethnological Museum Berlin also belongs, there is “quite a dynamic” in the talks. “We expect a return visit in December, it’s a very tight schedule and is becoming more and more specific.” A cooperation that encompasses many aspects is planned. “It’s not just about returns, but also about developing a completely new form of cooperation for the future. Restitution is the beginning and not the end of a cooperation,” said Parzinger of the dpa.

At the same time, because of the complicated conditions in Germany, it is clear: “The respective museums and their sponsors, states or municipalities, of course, decide for themselves about their collections.” Initially, efforts will be concentrated on the five German museums with larger holdings of Benin bronzes and their owners.

“We want to begin with the transfer of ownership in the course of next year,” said Parzinger. Both sides agree that Benin bronzes should continue to be shown in German museums. That is also in the joint declaration. “Which and under which circumstances must be worked out in detail in further cooperation and requires the agreement of the Nigerian side.” It is not just about return, but also about partnership and exchange.

Parzinger also sees prospects for other negotiations: “This could become a model for dealing with looted colonial art, in which future-oriented ways can be developed on the basis of a difficult past.”

“A very good solution achieved for both sides”

The head of the Benin Dialog Group, Barbara Plankensteiner, told the dpa: “We have achieved a solution that is very good for both sides.” The Nigerian side is also very keen to get all parties on board and to secure a common approach.

The group is an informal association of all museums in Europe that have large Benin collections. “The situation is different in every country,” said Plankensteiner, who is also the director of the Hamburg Museum am Rothenbaum. “We will now report on it. This first important step will perhaps inspire others. Some will also observe and see how this develops. In each country there are different framework conditions for the different museums.”

In Germany, the participating museums are now discussing how this can be implemented in the various federal states. “In principle there is already an agreement, but the political decisions are still needed. That still has to be specified.” That is why a Nigerian delegation will come to visit in December, “which will enter into direct talks with the individual houses,” said Plankensteiner.
© dpa