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How Germany Rethought Itself and Returned the Bronzes to Benin

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    Arts|How Germany Changed Its Mind, and Gave the Benin Bronzes Back



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    A ceremony in Nigeria on Tuesday was the culmination of a yearslong process that upended Germany’s approach to museum items looted during the colonial era.

    Nigerian officials unwrapping and inspecting brass and ivory artifacts in an auditorium.
    Twenty artifacts traveled with a German delegation to Abuja, Nigeria, for a handover ceremony on Tuesday.Credit...Olamikan Gbemiga/Associated Press

    Thomas Rogers, Rahila Lassa and Alex Marshall

    Thomas Rogers reported from Berlin; Rahila Lassa from Abuja, Nigeria; and Alex Marshall from London.

    When the airplane of Germany’s foreign minister touched down in Abuja, Nigeria, this past weekend, it carried precious cargo: 20 Benin Bronzes, priceless artifacts that were looted in a violent raid more than a century ago, and which were finally coming home.

    At a ceremony in Abuja on Tuesday, the German official, Annalena Baerbock, handed the stolen items back to Nigerian officials. “It was wrong to take the bronzes, and it was wrong to keep them for 120 years,” she said.

    In a legal sense, the 20 artifacts Baerbock brought with her belonged to Nigeria even before she took off from Berlin; more than 1,100 bronzes in German museums have become Nigerian property since the countries signed an agreement in July. But Tuesday’s handover was an important symbolic gesture, and many more of the artifacts are expected to come back to Nigeria next year. Others will remain in Germany on long-term loan.

    The foreign minister’s trip is the culmination of a yearslong process that upended Germany’s approach to handling cultural items unjustly obtained during the colonial period. It is also part of a pioneering model for large-scale restitution, in which ownership is swapped before any artifacts change hands. Crucially, that approach allows for items to be restituted even if the country of origin does not yet have the facilities to store and exhibit them.

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