Historic return of bronzes to Nigeria
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, Nigeria’s Minister of Culture Lai Mohammed, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zubairu Dada and Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Claudia Roth, © Thomas Trutschel/photothek.de
Over 1100 valuable bronzes from West Africa found their way into the collections of German museums some 125 years ago as a result of pillage in the colonial era. Today, Germany and Nigeria are together clearing the way for the return of the artefacts.
Together with their counterparts from Nigeria, Foreign Minister Baerbock and Federal Government Commissioner for Culture and the Media Roth are today signing a declaration of intent in the Weltsaal of the Federal Foreign Office. Nigeria’s Minister of Culture Lai Mohammed and Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Zubairu Dada are travelling to Berlin especially for the signing ceremony. Then they will receive two bronzes. These were brought back to Berlin at the end of the 19th century in the luggage of consul and businessman Eduard Schmidt and sold to the then Royal Ethnological Museum in the city in 1898.
Addressing colonial injustice
Germany has struggled for a long time to deal with the history of art from colonial contexts. There are more than a thousand bronzes from the former Kingdom of Benin (in what is today Nigeria) in the storerooms and collections of a total of twenty German museums. The works of art originate from the Royal Palace of the Oba, which was razed to the ground by British soldiers in 1897. Academics assume that more than 5000 bronzes were stolen and illegally brought to Europe in the context of pillage. The proceeds from the subsequent sale of the stolen artworks helped to finance the high costs of the expeditions of the day.
Experts from Germany and Nigeria have worked intensely to uncover the origin and whereabouts of the bronzes and have been discussing the return of the works of art for a long time. In signing the declaration of intent today (1 July), the two countries are putting in place the legal basis for the transfer of ownership of the individual bronzes. Expansion of Nigerian-German museum cooperation is also being agreed. Please find the text of the declaration here.
The bronzes in the Kingdom of Benin, in modern-day Nigeria, were masterpieces even in the 16th century: detailed ornaments adorn the relief panels, and the depictions of kings, Obas, are particularly carefully wrought, precise and artistic. Two impressive bronzes from the collection of the Ethnological Museum in Berlin are today being returned to the guests from Nigeria as a symbol for the start of the transfer of ownership. One is an 18th-century sculpture of a king’s head, weighing 35 kilogrammes, and the other is a 16th-century relief panel showing a king and four attendants. In addition to their tremendous artistic value, the works are also of huge ideological significance for many people in Nigeria.
Expanding museum cooperation
Not all bronzes in the collections of German museums will return to Nigeria immediately. The Nigerian side has declared its willingness to leave some artefacts here on loan, so that they can continue to be exhibited in Germany. This is a very special gesture of trust and of amity between the two countries.
The website of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation provides detailed information on the bronzes handed over today.
An overview of the bronzes held in German museums can be found on the website of the German Contact Point for Collections from Colonial Contexts: www.cp3c.de