Benin bronzes from German museums returned to the private sector

All the versions of this article: English , français

Only the naive (to put it mildly) will be surprised. It was bound to happen, and it is happening even sooner than we thought: a massive restitution operation has turned into a farce, and works that were returned to be kept in a museum (which was built with the money of the country that is disposing of them!) are now private property. And in a twist of fate, this farce comes from Germany, the country where Bénédicte Savoy, the high priestess of museum repentance, teaches. Two articles in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung tell of the affair, which affects Germany. Let’s admit that it would almost make us laugh.

1. View of the "I miss you" exhibition of 96 Benin bronzes returned by Germany to Nigeria in 2022 at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne
Photo: Raimond Spekking (CC BY-SA 4.0)
See the image in its page

This is Benin, but not the present Benin, the former Dahomey. Benin in the 19th century became Nigeria. And this is where the Benin bronzes come from, among the oldest African works preserved today, a large part of which is still in England, in the British Museum, after British troops seized them during a punitive expedition in 1897. A war that was then waged against a kingdom that sold slaves to the Portuguese and still practised human sacrifice. It is not us who say this, but Andreas Kilb, journalist at FAZ, who reminds us of this in this article.

2. View of the "I miss you" exhibition of 96 Benin bronzes returned by Germany to Nigeria in 2022 at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne
Photo: Raimond Spekking (CC BY-SA 4.0)
See the image in its page

What happened? Quite simply that the twenty bronzes already been transferred by Germany for display in a new museum in Edo City, along with the other works to be returned there, will not be. They had been shown with 76 others also restituted (but still in Germany) in 2022, in an exhibition finely entitled "I miss you" at the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne (ill. 1 and 2).
As soon as they arrived in Nigeria, ownership of the sculptures was transferred by Muhammadu Buhari, the recently retired president, to Ewuare II, the Oba, a descendant of the ancient kings of Benin. The Oba, like all the "Obas" who preceded him since 1897, no longer has any real power other than spiritual and "moral", particularly among the Edo ethnic group. As such, he helped the new Nigerian president, Bola Tinubu, who was supported by his predecessor, to be elected.

German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock said last December[[See this article in Le Point.] "Today we are here to return the Benin bronzes to their rightful place, to the Nigerian people". Missed ! The twenty bronzes now belong to Ewuare II, not to the Nigerian state or the Nigerian people (and not to Germany at all, of course). The Oba does not want these pieces, which are now in private hands, to be exhibited in the museum, preferring to keep them for himself. The most astonishing thing about this affair - we have taken all our information from the two articles in the FAZ - is the reaction of German officials who seem to be overwhelmed by the events and pretend to believe that everything is normal. According to the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, this is an "internal Nigerian affair". But Andreas Kilb’s conclusion is worth pondering: "In the multi-ethnic states of Africa, works of art, especially the most precious ones, are caught up in the spiral of vested interests.

3. Nigeria (formerly Benin), late 15th-early 16th century
Enemy or Queen’s Head
Bronze - 21 x 15.5 x 13.5 cm
Paris, Musée du Louvre (deposit of the Musée du Quai Branly)
Photo: Musée du Quai Branly
See the image in its page

England, but also France, which possessed some bronzes from Nigeria (ill. 3), now know what to expect: the "restitutions" they would make to this country would immediately pass into Ewuare II’s private collection. Moreover, the decree issued by the Nigerian president does not only concern the twenty bronzes already transferred by Germany, but all the objects taken away in 1897. And as we read in this other article, "There is no longer any question of travelling exhibitions, loans, public access, cooperation and international scientific exchanges". It also states that "The Oba has already officially informed the Dutch ambassador to Nigeria that the Netherlands must also comply with the ’law’"! These works were thus returned to the descendants of a slave-owning king who practised human sacrifice. This must be repentance as European governments see it.

Didier Rykner


On the history of Nigeria, that of the punitive expedition and the supposed poverty of the country’s museums, one can complete the reading of this article by that of Julien Volper already published on this site. But the facts not having any importance, no doubt that the "restitutions" will continue.


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