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Row erupts in Germany over restitution of Benin bronzes

By Celine LE PRIOUX
Benin The fate of the famous Benin bronzes, such as one from a collection in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, has triggered a heated debate.  By JENS SCHLUETER (AFP/File)
SAT, 10 JUN 2023 LISTEN
The fate of the famous Benin bronzes, such as one from a collection in the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, has triggered a heated debate. By JENS SCHLUETER (AFP/File)

In a move that many hailed as a salve for the historic wounds between Europe and Africa, Germany last December returned 22 artefacts, looted during the colonial era, to what is now Nigeria.

But five months on, questions are being asked in Germany as to whether cultural guardians were wise to hand back the priceless treasures, known as the Benin bronzes.

Controversy erupted after Nigeria's outgoing president, Muhammadu Buhari, suddenly declared in March that the artefacts would be returned to a traditional ruler -- and not to the Nigerian state, as Germany had expected.

The recipient named by Buhari is the Oba of Benin, a descendant of the sovereign who reigned over the kingdom of Benin when the bronzes were looted by the British at the end of the 19th century.

Custody of any repatriated bronzes must be "handed over to the Oba," who will be "responsible for the management of all places" where they are kept, Buhari's statement said.

Buhari's announcement was one of his last moves in office before he was succeeded by Bola Tinubu following elections.

But it stirred soul-searching in Germany, where critics said it appeared to breach a key understanding with Nigeria.

Under a July 2022 agreement, Germany promised to return around 1,100 bronzes from 20 of its museums, and both sides agreed on the importance of making the works accessible to the public.

Underpinning this were plans to display the bronzes in a new museum in Benin City in southern Edo state.

The state of Saxony has put the brakes on further restitutions pending clarification on whether the Oba's ownership would affect public display of the bronzes.

Saxony's Grassi museum was among five museums that handed over the 22 bronzes in December and other museums in the state still hold 262 pieces.

Before proceeding with returning them, the state wants to "wait to see what the effect of this declaration is (...) and how the new government is going to proceed", a spokesman for the Saxon culture ministry told AFP.

"We will not take any new steps" before the situation is made clear, he said.

No 'conditions'

Asked about Buhari's declaration, foreign ministry spokesman Christopher Burger said the return of the bronzes was "not subject to conditions."

The Ethnological Museum in Berlin's Humboldt Forum has a large collection of Benin bronzes.  By JENS SCHLUETER (AFP/File) The Ethnological Museum in Berlin's Humboldt Forum has a large collection of Benin bronzes. By JENS SCHLUETER (AFP/File)

"It is the decision of the sovereign state of Nigeria to do what it wants," he said, while adding that it was "important to us that the public continue to have access to the Benin bronzes".

Culture Minister Claudia Roth said she was "surprised and irritated" by the response to the declaration in Germany.

"What happens to the bronzes now is for the current owner to decide, and that is the sovereign state of Nigeria," she told the ZDF broadcaster.

Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which runs the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, said he did not believe Buhari's declaration placed future restitutions in doubt.

The Ethnological Museum has around 530 historical objects from the ancient kingdom of Benin, including more than 400 bronzes -- considered the most important collection outside London's British Museum.

Just an excuse?

The Museum of Ethnology in Hamburg is also among the German museums that returned the first tranche of bronzes in December.

It has signed a deal to return 179 artefacts from its collection to Nigerian ownership, though a third of them are to remain in Hamburg.

The museum told AFP it "has confidence in its Nigerian partners".

Abba Isa Tijani, who heads the Nigerian government agency in charge of recovering looted works, said the planned museum project in Benin City was unaffected by the declaration.

The bronzes, characterised by intricate carvings, have been acclaimed as a triumph of African art.  By JENS SCHLUETER (AFP/File) The bronzes, characterised by intricate carvings, have been acclaimed as a triumph of African art. By JENS SCHLUETER (AFP/File)

"The museum construction is still in place," he said.

"The Oba of Benin relies on this museum, nothing has changed because he doesn't have the staff or the expertise to run the museum," he added.

"We want to reassure our partners, the museums in Europe" that the objects will be "made available for researchers, and for the public and tourists to be seen," Tijani said.

"The artefacts of course can't be sold, because in Nigeria it's forbidden to sell Nigerian antiquities."

Peju Layiwola, an art historian and artist in Nigeria who was heavily involved in the battle for the return of the bronzes, said the reaction of western museums to the declaration had been overblown.

"It's an excuse... to not return those artefacts, because they didn't want to give it back," she said.

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