Germany on Friday signed an agreement to begin returning hundreds of Beninese bronzes to what is now Nigeria, endorsing the biggest effort ever by a European country to return the looted artworks.
Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock and Culture Minister Claudia Roth signed the deal with their Nigerian counterparts in Berlin after Germany first announced it would start returning the bronzes last year.
The first two works of art – the head of a king and a plaque depicting three warriors – were handed over to Nigerian officials on Friday.
“Today we have reason to rejoice, because we have reached a historic agreement: the bronzes of Benin go home,” said Baerbock.
“These pieces are not only magnificent artifacts – they are among Africa‘s greatest treasures. But they also tell a story of colonial violence,” she said.
Thousands of Beninese bronzes, metal plates and sculptures that once decorated the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin are now scattered in European museums after being looted by the British at the end of the 19th century.
Germany has around 1,100 artefacts from the 16th to 18th centuries, spread across around 20 museums.
The largest collection is held by the Ethnological Museum in Berlin, which has 440 – considered the most important collection outside the British Museum in London.
Negotiations are still ongoing to determine which of the bronzes held by the Ethnological Museum will be returned to Nigeria and which will remain in Berlin on loan.
Nigeria is negotiating the return of Beninese bronzes from several European countries and plans to build a museum in Benin City, in southern Edo State, where it hopes to house them.
In November, France returned 26 of the treasures, while two were returned by Britain earlier this year, with talks underway for more to follow.
Nigerian Culture Minister Lai Mohammed thanked Germany for “taking the initiative to right the wrongs of the past”, hailing “the dawn of a new era of cooperation”.
“It will be one of the most important days of celebrating African cultural heritage,” Foreign Minister Zubairu Dada added.