Germany’s FM to return looted artwork during state visit

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock posing for a photo next to one of the Benin Bronze after signing an agreement of intent at the Foreign Ministry for Germany's return of them to Nigeria on July 1, 2022 in Berlin, Germany. Photo: Omer Messinger/Getty Images

Annalena Baerbock, Germany’s Foreign Minister, is on a two-day state visit to Nigeria. Among the matters on the agenda for Berlin’s top diplomat is the return of 20 Benin Bronzes looted during the colonial period.

The main focus of the two-day visit to the oil-rich and most populous of Africa’s countries are the so-called Benin Bronzes. Baerbock also hopes that this visit will bring about closer economic co-operation with the West African country.

“Together with the federal states, cities and museums, we are showing that Germany is serious about coming to terms with its dark colonial history,” said the Green politician before embarking on her trip. Claudia Roth, Federal Commissioner for Culture and the Media, is accompanying Minister Baerbock on her trip.

While Germany held some colonial possessions in Africa, including in modern-day Namibia, where German colonialists were responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands of locals killed in the genocide of Nama and Herero peoples, the Benin Bronzes were looted by the British during their military incursion into the Kingdom of Benin in 1897. Countless pieces of priceless cultural heritage had been stolen. Many of them ended up in British museums while others were sold abroad. The two largest collections of Benin Bronzes can be found in the British Museum and the Ethnological Museum of Berlin.

All in all, German museums hold 1,100 Benin Bronzes scattered between some 20 German museums.

Baerbock emphasised the return of the 20 pieces of art as being a “long overdue step” which, although it “will not heal all the wounds of the past”, will allow Germany to come to terms with colonial injustices and also open a new chapter of closer co-operation between Berlin and Abuja.

In late November, the Horniman Museum in London returned part of its own collection of Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria. Under the agreement six of the 72 artefacts in their possession will be repatriated to Nigeria, while 66 are to remain at the Horniman Museum on loan. Some are hoping that these precedents will put pressure on other museums currently holding collections of art that were acquired via highly dubious moral means, and return them to where they were taken from.