Germany to return stolen Benin bronzes to Nigeria after 100-year wait

The treasures were looted from the Kingdom of Benin by a British colonial expedition in 1897

Nigerian Culture Minister Layiwola Mohammed and German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock sign agreement to return bronzes to Nigeria. AFP
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Germany is returning 20 Benin bronzes to Nigeria more than 100 years after they were stolen.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock announced that she will return the artefacts in person when she visits Nigeria next week.

The announcement comes a month after Britain's Horniman Museum, in south-east London, announced that it will return 72 items ― making it the first in the UK to officially take such action.

The bronzes were among a vast trove of treasures stolen by a British colonial expedition, in 1897, from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now south-west Nigeria.

Since the 16th century they were part of the palace, until the British expedition conquered the kingdom and burnt it down.

The artefacts were looted and more than 5,000 pieces were sold to buyers throughout Europe via auctions in London.

Benin bronzes being packed for return to Nigeria at the Ethnological Museum Dahlem in Berlin. AP

German acquired the world's second largest collection and more than 1,130 objects have been stored or displayed in its museums.

Germany's symbolic gesture follows an agreement this year between Berlin and Abuja that will result in all 514 Benin bronzes held in German museums handed back to Nigeria.

“With her trip Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock is fulfilling this pledge," said her spokesman Christofer Burger.

Ms Baerbock, who leaves for Abuja on Sunday, will be accompanied by representatives from the German museums with the biggest collections of Benin bronzes.

“It shows how serious Germany is about working through its colonial history,” Mr Burger said.

The objects, including numerous bas-reliefs and other sculptures, later found their way to collections around Europe, including the Ethnological Museum in Berlin.

It has one of the world’s largest collections of historical objects from the Kingdom of Benin, many dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries.

As part of the agreement, Nigeria will regain ownership of the bronzes but will continue to loan many of them to German museums, ensuring that some remain on display in Berlin and elsewhere.

Cologne's Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum has 92 bronzes, 89 of which will stay on loan for the time being ― next year 52 exhibits will be returned.

Museums in France and the United States have also begun a process of handing back items looted from Africa during colonial times.

Updated: December 16, 2022, 6:26 PM