1. Skip to content
  2. Skip to main menu
  3. Skip to more DW sites

Germany to return looted artifacts to Africa

June 29, 2022

Germany has agreed to return trove of looted African colonial artifacts, including over 1,000 Benin Bronzes that will be repatriated to Nigeria.

 statute of the goddess Ngonnso
The statute of the goddess Ngonnso will be returned to the kingdom of Nso in CameroonImage: Erik Hesmerg/Staatliche Museen zu Berlin/Ethnologisches Museum

The German government has reached an agreement with Nigeria on the return of around 1,100 Benin Bronzes.

The collection of metal plaques and sculptures that decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southwestern Nigeria, were looted during colonial times. The bronzes that have found their way into 20 museums across Germany were mostly taken by British forces when they conquered, burned, and looted the city of Benin in 1897.

The invaluable Benin Bronzes will be restituted to Nigeria after German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Commissioner for Culture and the Media Claudia Roth sign a memorandum of understanding with their Nigerian counterparts in Berlin on Friday that clears the way for the transfer of ownership rights.

Over 1,100 Berlin Bronzes in 20 German museums will be repatriated to NigeriaImage: Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa/picture alliance

"The return of the Benin Bronzes underpins our commitment to coming to terms with our colonial history. It should be the beginning of a new, a different cultural cooperation," said Roth in a statement released by the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which is charged with implementing the return.

"The agreement to be signed between the Nigerian and German governments is the general declaration for the return of some 1,130 Benin artifacts," Abba Isa Tijani, director of the Nigerian Museums and Monuments Authority, told DW. "With this agreement, ownership will be transferred to Nigeria."

Two bronzes are to be handed over to Nigeria directly after the signing of the memorandum of understanding.

In February, France returned 26 bronzes to Nigeria that were stolen in 1892 by French colonial forces from the former Dahomey kingdom, in the south of modern-day Benin. 

For many decades, museums and political leaders in Germany — which was the third-biggest colonial power after Britain and France until World War One — had avoided talks on concrete agreements for transfers or even restitution. But that has changed since 2021, when representatives of the German and Nigerian governments, and museums, announced the decision to transfer ownership.

Museums begin restitution process

The ornate artifacts can be found in some 20 German museums. Five museums with the most extensive collections are involved in the planned transfer of ownership to date.

These included the Linden Museum in Stuttgart.

"I am very confident that we will now quickly achieve comprehensive restitutions, especially from the Linden Museum," Theresia Bauer, the minister for art, science and education in the state of Baden-Württemberg, said on Tuesday.

Once the letter of intent for the ownership transfer is signed, organizing for the transfer between German and Nigerian museums can begin.

"We will meet with the various museums and discuss the technical aspects of the physical return of these objects, as well as other aspects of cooperation," explained Abba Isa Tijani. 

Discussions are ongoing, not only about the objects that will be transferred in the near future, but which can also remain in Germany on loan. 

Stolen Soul — Africa's Looted Art


This browser does not support the video element.

Stolen goddess statue to be returned to Cameroon

As part of an increasing commitment to return artifacts looted during the colonial era, the Prussian

Cultural Heritage Foundation said on Monday that the female figure known as Ngonnso will be returned to the kingdom of Nso in northwestern Cameroon.

It was taken by Kurt von Pavel, a colonial officer in Cameroon, who donated the statue to Berlin's Ethnological Museum in 1903.

"Bring Back Ngonnso," a civil society initiative, has been campaigning for the statue's return for years, as the Nso people say they have suffered misfortunes since the statue was stolen.

"The Ngonnso' has a central role for the Nso, as she is considered a mother deity," the foundation said in a statement.

A protester from Cameroon demands the return of the Ngonnso statue stands outside the Humboldt Forum's Ethnological Museum in BerlinImage: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

It added the artifact was not removed by war looting from Kumbo, the capital of the Nso kingdom. However, Pavel was accompanied by armed soldiers in Cameroon, which would have intimidated the Nso, the foundation said.

Mbinglo Gilles Yumo Nyuydzewira, an Nso kingdom prince, praised the decision to return the statue. 

"After more than 120 years, we can only remain happy for it is a moment to commemorate and come closer to our ancestral links with love and togetherness," Yumo Nyuydzewira told Reuters.

The foundation also announced that it will return 23 pieces to Namibia and is planning an agreement to repatriate objects to Tanzania.

Foundation president Hermann Parzinger said that objects that were not necessarily looted should also be repatriated.

"The special — especially spiritual — significance of an object for the society of origin can also justify a return," he said.

German expressionists and colonialism

Exhibitions at Berlin's Brücke-Museum and the Kunsthaus Dahlem show how German colonial legacy inspired an entire artistic movement.

Image: Groninger Museum/Marten de Leeuw

The primitivist art movement

Bright, contrasting colors, simplified forms, and a return to a supposedly simple life untouched by industrialization are among the features of primitivism. Ernst Ludwig Kirchner's "Still Life with Flowers and Sculptures" (1912) is a primary example. In Germany, this style was at the height of popularity when imperial Germany was a colonial power.

Image: Groninger Museum/Marten de Leeuw

'Whose Expression?' exhibition in Berlin's Brücke-Museum

Due to the large-scale export of objects from the colonies, the artists of the German expressionist movement, known as the Brücke artists, had easy access to non-European aesthetics. This sketch by Ernst Ludwig Kirchner was made after studying bronze reliefs from the Kingdom of Benin, which were taken and kept in storage in Dresden's Ethnological Museum.

Image: Kirchner Museum Davos

Inspiration or appropriation?

The expressionist group was especially interested by one object in the Dresden Ethnological Museum: an ornate roof beam from a Palauan meeting house. The Brücke artists even said "discovering" it in the museum was the spark that prompted them to start their artistic movement. The people in the background of this oil painting by Max Pechstein were copied from the figures depicted on the beam.

Image: akg-images/picture alliance

Paul Gauguin as an inspiration

French painter Paul Gauguin was certainly the most important role model for the art of the Brücke group. His Tahiti paintings brought him great fame posthumously, although he was embroiled in scandal in his lifetime. Nonetheless, his success, as well as the prospect of financial gain, was a reason for both Emil Nolde and Max Pechstein to set out for the South Sea themselves.

Image: Erich Lessing/akg-images/picture alliance

Kirchner's Berlin atelier

German artist Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (pictured here with his partner Erna Schilling) preferred to be surrounded by "exotic" sculptures, tapestries, fabrics and furniture. Some of them came from the colonies, while Kirchner designed others himself — yet he had never actually traveled to any of these countries.

Image: Ernst Ludwig Kirchner/Kirchner Museum Davos

A looted work, falsely attributed

This wooden seat with a leopard motif was long thought to be the work of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Yet the carving originated in what is now Cameroon, where it belonged to courtly elites. The current exhibitions in Berlin aim to research the origins of pieces such as this one, which were most likely looted, in order to understand them in their original context.

Image: Bundner Kunstmuseum Chur

More than just 'his Tolai wife'

In addition to the exhibition at the Brücke-Museum, a second exhibition at the neighboring Kunsthaus Dahlem aims to give voice to people who were colonized. In the pictured work, artist Lisa Hilli adds the name of the woman in the picture, laWarwakai, to an archival photograph of a white man and a woman captioned simply as "his Tolai wife" to show she was not simply a nameless subordinate.

Image: Courtesy of the artist

muSa Michelle Mattiuzzi: Abolition Garden

Kunsthaus Dahlem invited contemporary artists to comment on the colonial histories of works. The Brazilian artist's installation is meant to recall vases that people placed in their windows as a sign of solidarity for the abolition of slavery in Brazil. The triangular shapes and trident-like structures pay homage to Black feminism, while making a statement against racism and sexism.

Image: Roman März
8 images

sb/eg (dpa, Reuters)

Skip next section Explore more
Skip next section DW's Top Story

DW's Top Story

Skip next section More stories from DW

More stories from DW

Go to homepage