Many Countries Still Hold Tight to Looted Benin Bronzes

As Germany notably agrees to return a 'substantial' number of them to Nigeria
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted May 16, 2021 2:31 PM CDT
Hope for What Was Taken From the Kingdom of Benin
Three pieces of Benin Bronzes are displayed at Museum for Art and Crafts in Hamburg, Germany, Feb. 14, 2018. Germany is returning hundreds of artifacts known as Benin Bronzes that were mostly looted from western Africa by a British colonial expedition and then sold to collections around the world.   (Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa via AP)

(Newser) – 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, 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 and now held by 161 museums around the globe. That count is slowly being chipped away at, reports the New York Times, most notably by the German government's May decision to return a "substantial" number of its bronzes to Nigeria, where Benin was located and which has been requesting the bronzes be returned since 1960. Germany has pledged to complete and share an inventory of all Benin Bronzes in its museums by June 15; transfers would begin in 2022.

Germany's move is seen as the turning of a tide amidst a clamor to have the stolen art returned. But as the Washington Post reports, "many institutions remain hesitant to relinquish the work." As might be expected, the British Museum has the largest collection at about 900 pieces, and the power to return them lies with Parliament, which the Times reports would have to enact a change in the law in order to facilitate that. While some say Germany's move will put pressure on Britain, the statement the AP shares from the British Museum doesn't yet indicate any movement: "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 and how they interconnect over time—whether through trade, migration, conquest or peaceful exchange." (Read more Benin stories.)

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