Germany is set to become the first European country to repatriate back to Nigeria the bronze artefacts looted from Benin by British soldiers during the punitive expedition of 1897, The Guardian of London has reported.
Culture minister, Monika Grütters, was said to have announced that the country would start returning a “substantial” part of the artefacts held in its museums to Nigeria from 2022.
“We face up to our historic and moral responsibility to shine a light and work on Germany’s historic past,” Grütters said after museum experts and political leaders struck an agreement at a summit on Thursday.
“The treatment of the Benin bronzes is a touchstone [of this process],” Grütters said.
Germany is expected to present a binding roadmap for the legal and logistical aspects of the restitution process by the end of June, with the first objects to be handed over next year, the minister, a member of Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), said.
The bronze artefacts, after they were looted by British soldiers and sailors in 1897, were subsequently sold to museums in Europe and North America, with the single largest collection being held by the British Museum.
About 1,100 artefacts ended up in German museums in Hamburg, Cologne, Stuttgart, Leipzig and Dresden.
At least, 440 are said to be kept within the collection of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, and were due to go on display this autumn at the Humboldt Forum, a newly opened museum of non-European art in the city centre.
Berlin’s plan to return the Benin bronzes is said to be piling pressure on UK museums.
A decision on the restitution was said to have partly been facilitated by the fact that the Benin bronzes can be returned to a politically neutral body, the newly founded Legacy Restoration Trust.
Both the Nigerian government and the royal family of Benin have in the past laid claim to the artefacts.
The Benin bronzes could in the future be held at the Edo Museum of West African Art, a new museum in Benin City designed by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye.
Germany says it will help fund a pavilion to hold some restituted artefacts until the museum is completed in 2025.
“Germany’s bold decision to return looted classic arts from the kingdom of Benin to their rightful owners is definitely applauded and goes in the right direction,” said Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist and trustee of the Legacy Restoration Trust.
“This is a huge step towards righting what is wrong, especially coming from a country that was a super-power in colonisation. Germany has chartered a path for other Western countries struggling to find the right way to handle restitution cases.”