Two years ago, German and Nigerian authorities reached an agreement regarding the restitution of Benin bronzes looted in Africa in the late 19th century. Over 1,100 pieces exhibited in the Linden (Stuttgart), Grassi (Leipzig), Markk (Hamburg), Rauten-Joest (Cologne), and Ethnological Museum of Berlin would become Nigerian but remain in Germany on a long-term loan basis. Additionally, 76 stolen bronzes would be sent to Nigeria within two years. This agreement was supposed to be a major step in the decolonization of European museums.
In December 2022, the first twenty pieces were officially returned to Nigeria by Germany.
A private collection
The “Edo Museum of West African Arts” (EMOWAA) had been built in Benin City to house the restituted works. A German delegation even visited it last December to see where the restituted pieces would be exhibited, and Berlin partly financed its construction.
However, as noted by Didier Rikner, these bronzes will not be displayed to the Nigerian public but will instead become part of a private collection, owned by Ewuare II, the Oba or traditional ruler in the Gulf of Guinea region. The Oba considers himself to have inalienable rights over the restituted pieces and claims to be their legitimate owner.
This decision is highly detrimental to future restitutions of artistic pieces currently displayed in European museums. It undoubtedly sends a negative signal to European institutions still reluctant to part with their stolen works, providing them with a new argument to prevent further restitutions. France and the United Kingdom have committed to returning several items to Nigerian authorities, and the Nigerian government had also approached the Netherlands to adopt a similar restitution policy.
Furthermore, this decision undermines the work of African and Asian associations, diminishing their legitimacy due to the poor governance of the Nigerian case. It will become more challenging for these associations to persuade foreign countries to return looted artworks.
In their defense, as noted by Phillip Ihenacho, the director of EMOWAA, Nigerian cultural institutions cannot afford to ignore the societal reality of their country. Although the Oba no longer holds an official role, he remains an important figure in the community, and his support is sought by political leaders especially before elections. Some Nigerians perceive German institutions and leaders questioning the final destination of these artworks as neocolonialism.
The bronzes returned to Nigeria have a unique history, making the transfer of ownership problematic.
They originate from the retaliatory campaign led by British forces against the Kingdom of Benin (now in Nigeria) in 1897. In the 1890s, the United Kingdom sought to penetrate deeper into the inland areas of the Gulf of Guinea, leading to exploratory expeditions. In 1896, Deputy Consul James Robert Phillips visited the lands of the Oba of Benin, hoping to depose him due to the practice of human sacrifices in the kingdom. He and several members of his detachment were massacred in January 1897. The Foreign Office then decided to organize a punitive expedition against Benin. The British, under the command of Admiral Harry Rawson, triumphed over the Benin Kingdom’s troops and seized a treasure consisting of several thousand bronzes. These pieces were subsequently sold in Europe and North America, with Germany museums showing particular interest in the Benin bronzes.
However, these bronzes are also linked to Nigeria’s slave trading past, specifically the Kingdom of Benin. Indeed, this coastal kingdom built its fortune on the transatlantic slave trade by selling African slaves primarily to the Portuguese. The bronzes from the Kingdom of Benin were allegedly made from “manillas,” metal bracelets used as a form of currency in West Africa, particularly for the slave trade. In the United States, a class action was initiated by descendants of slaves organized through the Restitution Study Group (RSG) against the Smithsonian Institution to prevent the restitution of 29 Benin bronzes to Nigeria. They argued that this restitution would benefit those involved in this crime against humanity. Although this action has so far failed (the judgment is under appeal), and the bronzes have indeed been returned, this episode demonstrates the controversial nature of these restitutions. The RSG has also contacted German authorities, and other groups of descendants of slaves may take similar actions if these objects continue to be returned to the descendants of slave traders. Furthermore, institutions in the United States and Europe that return these pieces while knowing they will go to a private collection may be seen as encouraging a certain form of corruption in Africa. Therefore, it is important to understand the history of these artworks in order to find solutions that satisfy all parties.
In matters of restitution, nothing is ever simple. The conditions of the restitutions carried out by Germany to Nigeria may not be perfect, but Berlin has engaged in a process that deserves commendation. To ensure the continuity of these restitutions, Abuja will have to work, despite its specificities, and cooperate with representatives of local communities to find more inclusive solutions that allow the public to discover these works that have shaped their history, and not forget the dark tragedy of slavery.