Germany is to become the first country to hand back the Benin bronzes looted by British soldiers in the late nineteenth century.
“We face up to our historic and moral responsibility to shine a light and work on Germany’s historic past,” Monika Grütters, culture minister, said after museum experts and political leaders struck an agreement last week.
The bronzes, which were looted by British soldiers and sailors in 1897 on a punitive expedition to Benin City in Nigeria, were subsequently sold to museums in Europe and North America.
The single largest collection of Benin bronzes is held by the British Museum, but about 1,100 artefacts have ended up in German museums in Hamburg, Cologne, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Dresden. At least 440 are kept within the collection of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum.
The decision on the restitution was also helped along by the fact that the Benin bronzes can be returned to a politically neutral body, the newly founded Legacy Restoration Trust.
The Benin bronzes could in the future be held at the Edo Museum of West African Art, a new museum in Benin City designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye. Germany says it will help fund a pavilion to hold some restituted artefacts until the museum is completed in 2025.
“Germany’s bold decision to return looted classic arts from the kingdom of Benin to their rightful owners is definitely applauded and goes in the right direction,” said Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist and trustee of the Legacy Restoration Trust. “This is a huge step towards righting what is wrong, especially coming from a country that was a super-power in colonisation. Germany has chartered a path for other Western countries struggling to find the right way to handle restitution cases.”