The Benin Bronzes: Negotiations Over the Restitution of Objects from the Collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin

30.06.2021
Ethnologisches Museum

The foundation board of the Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz has paved the way for negotiations over the restitution of objects from the Kingdom of Benin.

In a meeting on 29 June 2021, the SPK steering committee authorised the President of the Stiftung, Hermann Parzinger, “to carry out negotiations over the restitution of objects from the collections of the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin as part of the joint negotiations between the German government and relevant bodies in Nigeria. The objects originated in the Kingdom of Benin and were plundered in 1897 in the course of what the British dubbed punitive expeditions. Unconnected with these events, they were later acquired by the Staatliche Museen zu Berlin on the art market.” The goal, according to the foundation board, is for substantial objects to be returned by the end of 2022. The resolution of the board also states that “a detailed plan for further negotiations is to be provided to the board at its next meeting.

The Benin Bronzes and How They Came to Be in Berlin

For more than 500 years, the Kingdom of Benin was a regional power in West Africa located near the Niger Delta. The territory of the erstwhile kingdom is located in what is now Nigeria. The 15th to 19th-century bronze sculptures and ivory carvings from the former Kingdom of Benin are among Africa’s most spectacular works of art. They bear testimony to the grandeur and historical significance of the kingdom, which for centuries maintained close trade ties with Europe.

The collections of courtly art in Benin came to be scattered across the world in 1897 as a result of Britain’s colonisation of the region. Many of the artworks that adorned the king’s palace were looted. British soldiers brought a portion of the objects to the United Kingdom, where in the following years they were often auctioned off in London or sold privately. Other objects made their way onto the market in Africa. The artefacts from Benin in today’s Ethnologisches Museum (formerly the Museum für Völkerkunde) were purchased on the art market.