Germany Signs Deal To Return Benin Bronzes To Nigeria

Annalena Baerbock, German Foreign Minister, and Lai Mohammed, Minister of Culture of Nigeria, signing a memorandum of understanding for property transfers of valuable Benin bronzes. Photo: Britta Pedersen/dpa
Annalena Baerbock, German Foreign Minister, and Lai Mohammed, Minister of Culture of Nigeria, signing a memorandum of understanding for property transfers of valuable Benin bronzes. Photo: Britta Pedersen/dpa

 

Germany signed an agreement on Friday to begin sending hundreds of Benin bronzes back to the Federal Government, rubber-stamping the biggest effort yet by a European country to return the looted artworks.

Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Culture Minister Claudia Roth signed the deal with their Nigerian counterparts in Berlin after Germany first announced that it would begin returning the bronzes last year.

Minister of Culture, Lai Mohammed, thanked Germany for having “taken the lead in correcting the wrongs of the past”, hailing “the dawn of a new era of cooperation”.

“This will go down as one of the most important days in the celebration of African cultural heritage,” Minister of State for Foreing Affairs, Zubairu Dada added.

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The first two artworks — the head of a king and a plaque depicting three warriors — were on Friday handed over to representatives from Nigeria.

“Today we have reason to celebrate, because we have reached a historic agreement — the Benin bronzes are returning home,” Baerbock said.

“These pieces are not only magnificent artefacts — they are some of Africa’s greatest treasures. But they are also telling a story of colonial violence,” she said.

Thousands of Benin bronzes, metal plaques and sculptures that once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin are now scattered around European museums after being looted by the British at the end of the 19th century.

Germany has around 1,100 of the 16th- to 18th-century artefacts, split between some 20 museums.

The biggest collection is held by the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, which has 440 — considered the most important collection outside London’s British Museum.

Negotiations are still ongoing as to which of the bronzes held by the Ethnological Museum will be returned to Nigeria, and which will remain in Berlin on loan.

Nigeria has been negotiating the return of Benin bronzes from several European countries and plans to build a museum in Benin City in southern Edo state, where it hopes to house them.

France in November handed back 26 of the treasures, while two were returned by Britain earlier this year, with talks ongoing for more to follow.

Oba Of Benin Takes Delivery Of Looted ‘Okpa,’ ‘Ilahor’ Returned From UK

 

The Bronze cockerel known as ‘Okpa’ and the Oba head bronze known as ‘Ilahor’ have been returned to the palace of the Oba in Benin City, Edo State capital.

The artefacts were returned in a ceremony held on Saturday at the Oba Palace.

The bronzes were accompanied by the Nigerian High Commissioner to the United Kingdom Sarafa Tunji Ishola and other officials from the UK.

 

The officials were received at Benin Airport on Saturday at 11:00 am.

The delegates later headed to the palace and presented the artefacts which were neatly packaged in a red-colour parcel.

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Earlier in October, last year, Jesus College, University of Cambridge returned a Benin Bronze, Okukor, making history as the first institution in the world to do so.

The Okukor statue was looted directly from the Court of Benin, as part of the punitive British expedition of 1897 and was given to the College in 1905 by the father of a student.

 

More than a hundred years later, the institution finally handed over the elaborately carved cockerel known as ‘Okukor’ to a Nigerian delegation at a ceremony in 2021.

Also in October 2021, the University of Aberdeen handed over a Benin Bronze to Nigeria after over 100 years since it was looted by British forces.

The sculpture, which depicts the head of an Oba (king), is one of the thousands of religious and cultural artefacts looted by British forces in 1897 during the destruction of Benin City in present-day Nigeria by a British military expedition.

Benin Kingdom Takes Legal Possession Of Repatriated Bronzes

 

The Oba of Benin Oba Ewuare II on Monday received the legal documents of the deed of transfer of the return of the bronze cockerel and the Oba bronze head recently handed over to Nigeria in the United Kingdom.

The legal documents were perfected at the palace of the Oba of Benin when signatories to the documents appended their signatures in the presence of the royal family, traditional rulers from different parts of Nigeria, as well as friends and well-wishers of the Benin monarch.

READ ALSO: Another UK University Officially Hands Over Looted Benin Bronze

The Nigerian High Commissioner to the UK, Tunji Ishola, who also appended his signature, said he’s already in physical possession of the bronzes but according to English law, a deed of transfer was imperative.

The signed documents were eventually officially handed over to the Oba.

This comes as Oba Ewuare II marks the fifth anniversary of his coronation.

Another UK University Officially Hands Over Looted Benin Bronze

After over 100 years of being looted by British forces, another UK University has returned a Benin Bronze to Nigeria.

 

The University of Aberdeen has handed over a Benin Bronze to Nigeria after over 100 years since it was looted by British forces.

The handover ceremony took place on Thursday in Scotland with Prince Aghatise Erediauwa, the younger brother of the current Benin monarch; Chief Charles Uwensuyi-Edosomwan, the Obasuyi of Benin; Professor Abba Isa Tijani, Director of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments; Babatunde Adebiyi, the Legal Adviser of National Commission for Museums and Monuments; and Abdul Mohammed Gimba, Director, Museums, National Commission for Museums and Monuments present to receive the artefact.

They were also accompanied by Prince Isa Bayero, a Prince of the Kano Emirates; His Excellency, Suleiman Sani, Deputy High Commissioner to Nigeria in UK; and Mrs Edith Ekunke, Retired Director of the National Museum, Lagos.

The sculpture, which depicts the head of an Oba (king), is one of thousands of religious and cultural artefacts looted by British forces in 1897 during the destruction of Benin City in present-day Nigeria by a British military expedition.

It was later purchased by the University of Aberdeen at an auction in 1957.

But a recent review of collections included research into its provenance confirming that it was one of the so-called ‘bronzes’, acquired in immoral circumstances during the Benin Punitive Expedition in which the royal palace of the Oba was burned and looted.

As a result, in 2020 the University instigated a conversation through Professor Bankole Sodipo, Professor of Law in Babcock University, Nigeria, with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, the Edo State Government and the Royal Court of the Oba, regarding its return.

A formal request for repatriation by the Nigerian Federal Government and supported by the other parties was then proposed and in March 2021 it was unanimously approved by the University Court following discussion by an expert panel, which included representatives of the University, the Director of the Hunterian Museum in the University of Glasgow and Professor Sodipo representing the Nigerian partners.

Read Also: [VIDEO] Benin Bronze ‘Okukor’ Returned To Nigeria After Over 100 Years

Reacting to the move, his Royal Majesty, Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare (II) said: “we thank the University of Aberdeen for this noble act of returning our bronze work. We hope that other institutions worldwide will see the injustice when they insist on holding on to items which in fact should be a reminder to them of the great injustice that was inflicted on a people so far away and so long ago”.

The process of a legal transfer then began with the University working to support the timescales identified by the Nigerian partners for its physical return.

His Royal Majesty, Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II, said: “much has been said about the significance of heritage art and, in spite of the occasional attempts in some quarters to downplay their cultural and religious relevance, these works are often imbued with the spirit of the people from whom they were taken.

“Regardless of the resistance in some quarters, the return of stolen art is the right thing to do. Some say that they acquired their own collections. This is like saying, well, I know this item was originally stolen but because I bought it somewhere, then I’m okay. That notion is completely wrong and unfortunate.

“In any event, we thank the University of Aberdeen for this noble act of returning our bronze work. We hope that other institutions worldwide will see the injustice when they insist on holding on to items which in fact should be a reminder to them of the great injustice that was inflicted on a people so far away and so long ago”.

Professor Abba Isa Tijani, Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, said: “We at the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria really appreciate the initiative of the University of Aberdeen to release the Benin Bronze head in their collection.

“The University commenced this move without being instigated. This is unprecedented. On its volition, the University felt it ought to return to Nigeria an important cultural object it obtained some decades ago through what can pass in the United Kingdom as legal acquisition. I must appreciate Professor Bankole Sodipo who linked up with Lawyer Babatunde Adebiyi of the Commission to ensure that an avenue for discussion was created.

“The synergy was an added impetus to the initiative of the University of Aberdeen. Today, we are witnessing the success story. The Commission intends to cement its relationship with the University of Aberdeen and also work with the University in fashioning mutual agreements with other universities and institutions in the region regarding Nigerian artefacts in their holdings.

“We earnestly expect without any doubt that other persons and institutions will reach out to us for talks on the way forward concerning Nigerian artefacts in their possession. The Aberdeen return should inspire all to a future of friendly returns.”

The Minister of Information and Culture of Nigeria, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, said: “Nigeria warmly welcomes the return of the Benin Bronze Head by the University of Aberdeen and once again calls on all individuals, organizations and countries in possession of Nigerian artefacts to voluntarily return them to where they belong – Nigeria.”

Professor George Boyne, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, said: “Over the last 40 years the Benin Bronzes have become important symbols of injustice.

“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural significance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances.

“The University took a proactive approach to identify the appropriate people to discuss what to do and we are extremely grateful for the collective approach taken by the partners in Nigeria, which has facilitated this return.

“We are delighted to welcome our guests representing the Federal Republic of Nigeria, the Kingdom of Benin, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and commend their spirit of co-operation in making this possible.”

The partners have committed to the safe-keeping of the Bronze ‘in such a manner and in true essence of its sovereignty’, until it can be put on public display at the Oba’s palace or other agreed place.

This comes a day after the Jesus College, University of Cambridge returned a Benin Bronze – the Okukor statue to Nigeria.

Jesus College, University of Cambridge became the first institution in the world to return a Benin Bronze.

It was looted directly from the Court of Benin, as part of the punitive British expedition of 1897 and was given to the College in 1905 by the father of a student.

VIDEO: Benin Bronze ‘Okukor’ Returned To Nigeria After Over 100 Years

 

Jesus College, University of Cambridge has become the first institution in the world to return a Benin Bronze.

The Okukor statue was looted directly from the Court of Benin, as part of the punitive British expedition of 1897 and was given to the College in 1905 by the father of a student.

More than a hundred years later, the institution has finally handed over the elaborately carved cockerel known as ‘Okukor’ to a Nigerian delegation at a ceremony held on Wednesday.

Delegates from Nigeria and Benin nominated to receive the historic artefact included the brother of the Oba of Benin, Prince Aghatise Erediauwa; Director-General of the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria, Professor Abba Tijani, and the Nigeria High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Ambassador Sarafa Isola.

Highlights of the ceremony are captured in the pictures below:

FG To Take Possession Of Returning Benin Bronzes – Lai Mohammed

 

The Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, on Saturday said the Federal Government will be responsible for taking possession of the 1,130 Benin bronzes to be returned by Germany.

“The Federal Government is aware of the widely reported controversy on who will take possession of the Benin bronzes when they are returned from Germany,” Mr Mohammed said on Saturday at a press conference in Lagos.

The return of the bronzes, looted by Britain from Benin-city in the 19th century, had recently generated some controversy in Edo State.

While the Oba of Benin wants the artefacts returned to the Benin Royal Museum, Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki has said they will be kept in “a transformational museum to be built in Benin City.”

Mr Mohammed noted that the Federal Government would take possession while respecting the culture where the art originated from.

“Let me state clearly that, in line with international best practices and the operative conventions and laws, the return of the artefacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany,” he said.

“What we are saying in essence is that the Federal Government will take possession of these antiquities because it is its duty to do so, in line with extant laws.

“But we have always exercised this right in cognizance of that culture that produced the art works.”

Although he did not state where the artefacts will be eventually kept, he thanked Governor Obaseki and the Oba of Benin for their work in the repatriation of the bronzes.

Mr Mohammed, who recently led a delegation to Berlin to discuss the modalities for the proposed return, said the agreement will be signed by December 2021 with repatriation to be concluded by August 2022.

He added that the return of the artefacts will be unconditional.

“We agreed to have a definite timeline for the repatriation of the artefacts because Nigeria is tired of an indefinite timeline,” he said.

“Thereafter, it was resolved that the agreement on the repatriation should be signed latest by December this year and that the repatriation should be concluded by August 2022.

“We made our Germany counterparts realise that Nigeria is averse to attaching preconditions to repatriating the Benin bronzes. We made it clear that these are our properties and it is not proper to give us conditions for releasing them.

“We therefore agreed that the release will be unconditional, neither will it be staggered.

“We have decided that the repatriation of the artefacts should not be the end of an era but rather the beginning of a new vista of stronger relations, pivoted by cultural diplomacy, between Nigeria and Germany.”

 

Read his full statement on Saturday below:

TEXT OF THE PRESS CONFERENCE BY THE HON. MINISTER OF INFORMATION AND CULTURE, ALHAJI LAI MOHAMMED, ON THE EFFORTS BY THE FEDERAL GOVERNMENT TO REPATRIATE LOOTED/SMUGGLED ARTEFACTS FROM AROUND THE WORLD….IN LAGOS ON SATURDAY JULY 17TH 2021

Good morning gentlemen and thank you for once again honoring our invitation. We have organized this press conference to update Nigerians on the efforts being made by the Federal Government to repatriate looted and smuggled Nigerian artefacts from around the world. We also believe that you, as critical stakeholders, must be carried along in these efforts.

2. Recall, gentlemen, that on Nov. 28th 2019, I announced, at a press conference here in Lagos, the launch of the Campaign For The Return and Restitution of Nigeria’s Looted/Smuggled Artifacts from around the world. I said that with the launch, we are putting on notice all those who are holding on to Nigeria’s cultural property anywhere in the world that we are coming for them, using all legal and diplomatic instruments available. Less than two years after that announcement, I can report back to Nigerians that our efforts at repatriating Nigeria’s looted artefacts are achieving positive results. The work ahead remains tough and daunting, but we will not relent until we have repatriated all our stolen and smuggled antiquities. These artefacts are so cherished all over the world and we realize that if they are returned to Nigeria and properly exhibited within and outside the country under our control, they stand to increase the influx of tourists to our nation and earn us good money. Of course, these timeless and priceless pieces of work are an important part of our past, our history, our heritage resource, and allowing them to sit in the museums of other nations robs us of our history.

3. Gentlemen, even though not everyone in possession of these artefacts is willing to return them, we remain undeterred as we have deployed all legal and diplomatic means and we have been recording
successes in our quest for repatriation. Here are some of the successes we have recorded since that press conference in 2019:

– In October 2020, The Netherlands returned a highly-valued 600-year-old Ife Terracotta.

– In March 2021, the University of Aberdeen in Scotland agreed to return a Benin Bronze from its collections. We shall take possession of this in October this year.

– In April 2021, we received a bronze piece from Mexico.

– The University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom has also agreed to return a disputed Benin artefact. We will soon commence the procedure for the repatriation of this highly-valued piece.

– We have also secured a date in October 2021 for the repatriation of antiquities from the Metropolitan Museum in New York. These antiquities consist of two important Benin Bronzes and an exquisite
Ife Bronze head. We are currently before the Intergovernmental Committee for Promoting the Return of Cultural Property to it Countries of Origin or its Restitution in case of Illicit Appropriation (ICPRCP) in Paris, where we have instituted a claim against a Belgian who wanted to auction an Ife Bronze head valued at $5 million, at least. This Ife Bronze antiquity has been seized by the London Metropolitan Police, pending the decision on who the true owner is. Of course, we all know that the true owner is Nigeria.

REPATRIATION OF LOOTED ARTEFACTS FROM GERMANY
4. The most remarkable progress in our quest to repatriate our looted artefacts has been recorded in Germany, which is currently working with us for the repatriation of 1,130 Benin Bronzes to Nigeria. As you are aware, I recently led a high-level Nigerian delegation to Berlin, Germany, to iron out the modalities for the repatriation. During the trip, our delegation met with Prof. Monika Grutters, the German Minister of State for Culture, who has
responsibility for antiquities; the German Foreign Minister, Mr. Heiko Maas, the Secretary of State in the German President’s office, Mr. Stephen Steinlein, and Harmann Parzinger, President of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is the centre of the German culture establishment, and his team, I also met with the Directors of at least 20 major museums. The negotiations were tough but fruitful. We have agreed that there is no going back on the issue of returning the Benin Bronzes.

5. At the meetings in Germany, I insisted, and it was resolved that provenance research on the Benin Bronzes cannot and must not delay their return, since the origin of Benin objects is not a subject of dispute as such objects are only associated with the Benin Kingdom. On the German authorities’ proposal to return a ‘substantial part’ of the Benin Bronzes. I have asserted the stand of the Nigerian government by
demanding full and unconditional release of the artefacts. Concerning recording the artefacts in 3D formats for posterity and academic sake under the ‘digitalbenin’ project, of which we are a part. I have told the Germans that this work of digitalizing the Benin Bronzes must not delay the return of the artefacts and that issues related to copyrights ownership and other rights over the digitalized objects will be discussed soon.

6. We agreed to have a definitive timeline for the repatriation of the artefacts because Nigeria is tired of an indefinite timeline. Therefore, we resolved that the agreement on the repatriation should be signed in December 2021 and the repatriation should be concluded by August 2022. I told the Germans that Nigeria is averse to attaching pre-conditions to repatriating the Benin Bronzes. These are our properties, do not give us conditions for releasing them. We therefore agreed that the release will be unconditional, neither will it be staggered.

7. It must be noted, however, that the meetings in Germany were not only about repatriating these objects. We have decided that the repatriation of the artefacts should not be the end of an era but the beginning of a new vista of stronger relations, pivoted by cultural diplomacy, between Nigeria and Germany. In this regard, there are other benefits accruing to Nigeria from the ongoing talks. There will be archaeological training for Nigerians. The Nigerian side and the German side agreed to Nigeria’s proposal to use the repatriated artefacts and other works of art to inspire Nigeria’s Creative Industry towards realizing its high potential. For this and
other purposes, it was agreed that the Germans will facilitate the establishment of an academy in Nigeria.

CONTROVERSY OVER THE POSSESSION OF THE RETURNED ARTEFACTS
8. Gentlemen, the Federal Government is aware of the widely-reported controversy on who will take possession of the Benin Bronzes when they are returned from Germany. Let me state clearly here that, in line with international best practice and the operative Conventions and laws, the return of the artefacts is being negotiated bilaterally between the national governments of Nigeria and Germany. Nigeria is the entity recognized by international law as the authority in control of antiquities originating from Nigeria. The relevant international Conventions treat heritage properties as properties belonging to the nation and not to individuals or subnational groups. For example, the 1970 UNESCO Convention, in its Article 1, defines cultural property as property specifically designated by that nation. This allows individual nations to determine what it regards as its cultural property. Nevertheless, the Nigerian state – through the Federal Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments – has in working assiduously over the past years to repatriate our looted artefacts carried along our important
traditional institutions and state governments

9. What I am saying in essence is that the Federal government will take possession of these antiquities, because it is its duty to do so, in line with the extant laws. But we have always exercised this right in cognizance of that culture that produced the art works. That is why the Ministry of Information and Culture and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments have always involved both the Edo State government and the Royal Benin Palace in discussions and negotiations that have now resulted in the impending return of these antiquities. Please note that we are not just involved in the repatriation of Benin artefacts. We are also working on repatriating Ife Bronzes and Terracotta, Nok Terracotta, Owo Terracotta, the arts of the Benue River Valley, the Igbo Ukwu, the arts of Bida, the arts of Igala, Jukun etc. Recall, gentlemen, our efforts over the Igbo statues that were auctioned at Christie’s in Year 2020, and the fact that we took the British and Belgian authorities to ICPRCP in 2019 over an Ife object.

10. Finally, I want to most sincerely commend the Government of Germany for taking the lead in the global efforts to repatriate all artefacts that were looted from Nigeria and indeed from the African continent. As I said during the meetings in Berlin, we see Germany as a leader in the efforts to take practical steps to repatriate our stolen artefacts, and we hope Germany will sustain that lead. I also want to thank Governor Godwin Obaseki of Edo State, who was with us all through the tough negotiations in Berlin, and His Royal Majesty the Oba of Benin, who sent the Benin Crown Prince, His Royal Highness Ezelekhae Ewuare, to be a part of the Nigerian delegation to Berlin. We thank all Nigerians, especially the media, for their support for our efforts to repatriate all our looted artefacts.

11. Gentlemen, I thank you for listening. I will now take your questions.

UK University To Return Benin Bronze To Nigeria

 Benin bronze
The Benin bronze was acquired by the university in 1957. Photo: Aberdeen University.

 

The University of Aberdeen has said it will return a Benin Bronze to Nigeria, many years after the British looted the sculptures. 

In a statement on Thursday, the university explained it has previously repatriated sacred items and ancestral remains to Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

“An ongoing review of the collections identified the Head of an Oba as having been acquired in a way that we now consider to have been extremely immoral, so we took a proactive approach to identify the appropriate people to discuss what to do,” the school said as it became the first institution to agree to the full repatriation from a museum of a Benin bronze.

Photo: Aberdeen University.

 

The bronze sculpture showing an Oba (king) of Benin was acquired by the University in 1957 at an auction and is believed to be a great example of Benin Late Period Art

“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances,” the university added.

“We, therefore, decided that an unconditional return is the most appropriate action we can take, and are grateful for the close collaboration with our partners.”

 

Photo: Aberdeen University.

 

A Right Step

The release of the bronze work, according to Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Lai Mohammed, is a right step in the right direction.

 

 

“The reaching out by the University of Aberdeen and eventual release of the priceless antiquity is a step in the right direction,” the institution quoted him as saying. “Other holders of Nigerian antiquity ought to emulate this to bring fairness to the burning issue of repatriation”.

Photo: Aberdeen University.

‘In Line With Our Values’ 

The move was also backed by Aberdeen University’s governing body and the Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the school,  Professor George Boyne, said the development is in line with the values of the institution.

“This is in line with our values as an international, inclusive university and our foundational purpose of being open to all and dedicated to the pursuit of truth in the service of others,” the school quoted him as saying.

“It would not have been right to have retained an item of such great cultural importance that was acquired in such reprehensible circumstances. We, therefore, decided that an unconditional return is the most appropriate action we can take, and are grateful for the close collaboration with our partners in Nigeria.”

Photo: Aberdeen University.

 

According to the school, it started the conversation for the return of the artwork through Professor Bankole Sodipo, Professor of Law in Babcock University, Nigeria with the National Commission for Museums and Monuments of Nigeria through its Legal Adviser, Babatunde Adebiyi, the Edo State Government through the then Attorney-General and Commissioner for Justice, Professor Yinka Omorogbe and the Royal Court of the Oba of Benin through Prince Professor Gregory Akenzua in 2020.

The British forces looted thousands of metal and ivory sculptures as well as carvings during an invasion of Benin City in 1897.

Copper-alloy sculpture depicting an Oba (king) of Benin. Photo: Aberdeen University.

 

Some of the soldiers and administrators involved sold the artworks to museums, while others were given as gifts to museums or sold at auction or by art dealers.