'It Was Wrong to Take the Bronzes' and 'Keep Them for 120 Years'

Germany returns 20 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Dec 21, 2022 11:50 AM CST
'It Was Wrong to Take the Bronzes' and 'Keep Them for 120 Years'
Benin Bronzes looted in the past and returned to Nigeria are examined during a handing-over ceremony in Abuja, Nigeria, on Tuesday.   (AP Photo/Olamikan Gbemiga)

The kingdom of Benin—whose earthen walls were said to be on par with those of the Great Wall of China—stood from the 11th century until 1897. That was the year the British invaded what's now southern Nigeria, burned it down, and made off with the Benin Bronzes: masks, figures, and plaques made of metal, ivory, and wood. They were taken by the thousands, but on Tuesday, Germany returned 20 of them to Nigeria in what the New York Times describes as the coda of a yearslong process. "It was wrong to take the bronzes, and it was wrong to keep them for 120 years," German official Annalena Baerbock said in a Tuesday ceremony in the capital Abuja.

In a way, they'd been returned prior to Tuesday, though. That's because under a July agreement—notable in that it was made by the German government, not specific museums—ownership of the 1,130 bronzes held in German museums was transferred to Nigeria, reports Reuters. More are slated for return in 2023, with some to stay in Germany on an extended loan. The Times calls the arrangement "a pioneering model for large-scale restitution, in which ownership is swapped before any artifacts change hands. Crucially, that approach allows for items to be restituted even if the country of origin does not yet have the facilities to store and exhibit them."

The AP quotes Nigerian Foreign Affairs Minister Geoffrey Onyeama as expressing "deep gratitude" to Germany for returning the artifacts, noting they don't just hold aesthetic value but have cultural and spiritual significance to his country's people. He called on England and other countries who still hold bronzes to return them on moral grounds. Indeed, Reuters suggests the move will ramp up pressure on the British Museum in London, whose roughly 900 bronzes are the biggest single collection in the world. (More Benin Bronzes stories.)

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