Germany begins returning looted copper artifacts to Nigeria

Germany returned 22 Benin bronzes – looted plaques and sculptures from Benin – to Nigeria on Tuesday. The initial step was part of a broader agreement reached earlier this year to return all 1,130 artifacts to Nigeria, according to the Associated Press.

The artifacts were taken from the Kingdom of Benin – in present-day southwestern Nigeria, not to be confused with the nation of Benin – more than 120 years ago. Their repatriation is part of a wider effort by Western nations to return looted items to Africa.

Nigeria Germany Benin Copper
Formerly looted Benin bronzes returned to Nigeria are examined during a handover ceremony in Abuja, Nigeria, Tuesday, Dec. 20, 2022.

Olamikan Gbemiga / AP

“Today, we are here to return the Benin Bronzes to where they belong: to the people of Nigeria.” he said German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock during the official handover ceremony of the first 22 bronze medals.

“We are here to right a wrong… It was wrong to take them, but it was also wrong to keep them,” Baerbock added, calling Germany’s initial refusal to return the artifacts “a story of European colonialism.”

Return of Benin Bronzes
(RL) Lai Mohammed, Minister of Information and Culture in Nigeria, Geoffrey Onyeama, Minister of Foreign Affairs of Nigeria, Annalena Baerbock (Alliance 90/Greens), Federal Minister of Foreign Affairs and Claudia Roth (Alliance 90/Greens), Minister of State for Culture and the Media, Pictured with a miniature ivory mask during the ceremony for the return of the Benin bronzes to Nigeria in Abuja, December 20, 2022.

Florian Gaertner/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Nigeria’s Minister of Information and Culture, Alhaji Lai Mohammed, praised Germany, saying“There comes a moment in human history when we are called upon to do the right thing. This moment beckoned and Germany seized it.”

“Twenty years ago, even ten years ago, no one could have predicted that these coppers would return to Nigeria because the obstacles to achieving repatriation were seemingly insurmountable.” added Muhammad, who also other institutions are called to return the Nigerian artifacts — particularly the British Museum, which owns more than 900 Benin bronzes, according to Mohammed.

Muhammad too clarified that the Benin bronzes are not just cultural artifacts, but “the true essence of our being”.

“They are not just decorative works, but our culture and heritage. They belong here, not anywhere else,” Mohammed added.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Smithsonian Institution, and the Rhode Island School of Design, are among the institutions that also agreed to return the Benin bronzes to their possession.

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