The Saxony region is concerned about the fate of Benin bronzes returned by Germany to Nigeria

In December 2022, Berlin returned to Nigeria 22 bronzes from the former kingdom of Benin, looted during the colonial era. But five months later, the blurring of the fate of the returned objects is causing some unease in Germany.

Property of the “Oba” of Benin

At the origin of the trouble, a decree promulgated on March 28 by Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari, who was succeeded in May by Bola Ahmed Tinubu, which confers ownership of the repatriated works to the “Oba of Benin”, and not to the Nigerian State. .

This traditional chief is the heir of the sovereign who reigned over this kingdom (in southwestern Nigeria) when the bronzes were stolen, during a British colonial expedition at the end of the 19th century. “As the original owner”the “Oba” (the king) “must be responsible for the management of all places where the repatriated objects are domiciled”indicates this decree.

When Berlin reached an agreement on the return of around 1,100 bronzes from 20 German collections and museums, the two countries agreed on the importance of making the works accessible to the public. The bronzes are planned to be exhibited in a new museum in Benin City, in southern Edo State. What will happen under the presidential decree?

No “new approach”

The authorities in the Saxony region are demanding clarification and have put restitution proceedings on hold. Saxony still has 262 Beninese bronzes in its museums, the second largest collection in Germany. The German region wants to see “what is the effect of this decree (…) and how the new government will proceed”. Before that, “we will not take any new steps”told AFP a spokesman for the Ministry of Culture of this state.

A reaction greeted with annoyance by the Federal Minister of Culture, Claudia Roth. “What happens to the bronzes now is up to the current owner, and that is the sovereign state of Nigeria”she told the ZDF channel. “The return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria was not subject to conditions”, also said a spokesman for the German Foreign Ministry, Christopher Burger. But to remember how much it is “important that the public continue to have access to the bronzes of Benin after the restitution”.

The debate goes beyond the question of where the objects will be exhibited, writes the German newspaper FAZ. “When works of art are privatized, their interpretation also becomes private”, believes the liberal daily, pointing to historical research that the former royal family of Benin “was not the least involved in the slave trade, which benefited not only European powers, but also local elites”. The newspaper thus warns against the temptation to erase this aspect in order to present a glorious historical account of the context in which the bronzes were created.

A pretext “not to return the objects”

These fears irritate the president of the Prussian Heritage Foundation Hermann Parzinger, in charge of the Ethnological Museum of Berlin: “Do we really want to go back to the attitude of the 1970s, when we Europeans equated the return of cultural property to Africa with loss, destruction and sale?” he wrote in early May.

Its museum has 530 historical objects from the ancient kingdom of Benin, including 440 bronzes, considered the most important collection after that of the British Museum in London. In Nigeria, the president of the government agency in charge of the return of looted works, Abba Isa Tijani, wants to calm the debate. “We want to reassure our partners, museums in Europe (…) the objects will be accessible to researchers, the public and tourists (…) and cannot be sold”he told AFP.

As for the construction of the Benin City museum, it “keep on going”. “The Oba royal family of Benin is counting on this museum, nothing has changed, since it does not have the expertise and the staff to manage the museum”, he continued. Peju Layiwola, an art historian and artist in Nigeria, very involved in the battle for the return of the bronzes, criticizes a “propaganda which consists in saying that the objects will be lost”. She recalls that the king has always “clearly” indicated that a museum would be created. It’s all just one “Excuse not to return the objects, she says, because they do not want to return them“.

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