Berlin is planning to hand back its Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, piling pressure on the British Museum to return its own world-class holdings.
Germany is moving towards full restitution of its looted treasures, a foreign ministry official revealed yesterday.
Hundreds of bronzes from the ancient Kingdom of Benin, located in modern-day Nigeria – a former British colony – are held at the Ethnological Museum in the German capital. They were due to be unveiled at the Humboldt Forum, a new museum of non-European art in the city centre.
But Hartmut Dorgerloh, the Humboldt’s director, confirmed that they could instead be returned to Nigeria by the autumn.
Andreas Görgen, the head of the Foreign Ministry’s culture department, visited Benin City last week for discussions with Edo State Governor Godwin Obaseki and other Nigerian officials, the Art Newspaper reported yesterday, although terms are yet to be finalised.
The Benin Bronzes were looted in 1897. Weeks after British military officers, colonial officials and traders were ambushed and killed by local soldiers, British troops took revenge, exiling the king and helping themselves to thousands of objects, including statues, commemorative heads and ivory carvings.
Barnaby Phillips, author of a forthcoming book, “Loot: Britain and the Benin Bronzes”, said that this will put pressure on Britain and that the British Museum – which boasts the world’s biggest collection of Benin Bronzes.
He said: “If other museums are giving back [their bronzes], the British Museum will look out of step.”
The British Museum rotates its displays and makes all objects available for study, he pointed out that it is also bound by legal constraints. “Neither the director nor the board of trustees could return the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria without Parliament voting to change the law,” he said.
“Ultimately, it would be down to politics. If you see the kinds of things [culture secretary] Oliver Dowden has said, warning British museums not to hand over their crown jewels, let alone sponsoring a vote in Parliament that the Government would support, I can’t see that happening. So this is awkward for the British Museum.”
He noted that the British Museum and several institutions have already hashed out a careful compromise with the Nigerian authorities, with a consortium of European museums agreeing to loan back 300 Benin Bronzes.
Dan Hicks, a curator at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which holds about 150 Benin objects taken in 1897, said: “Time’s up for simply ignoring these longstanding claims.”
He added: “It will come as a surprise to some people that the move towards restitution of objects that were taken by the British… is coming from a museum in Germany. In many ways, that shows us that so many of these objects are not only in the British Museum.
“In fact only eight per cent of more than 10,000 objects that were taken in 1897 are now in the British Museum. The rest are in 160 or more museums around the world. What this signals is that each one of those museums, including 45 here in the UK, will now be having their own conversations.”
In a statement, the British Museum said: “The devastation and plunder wreaked upon Benin City during the British military expedition in 1897 is fully acknowledged by the Museum and the circumstances around the acquisition of Benin objects explained in gallery panels and on the Museum’s website.
“We believe the strength of the British Museum collection resides in its breadth and depth, allowing millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world.”