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A London museum will return its stolen Benin bronzes to Nigeria

Zoe Sottile, CNN

A London museum has agreed to return 72 objects looted from Benin City in 1897 to the Nigerian government.

The Horniman Museum and Gardens, located in south London, announced the transfer in a news release Sunday. All of the objects were taken from the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now the capital of Edo State in southern Nigeria, during a British military operation in February 1897, the museum said.

The artifacts include 12 brass plaques that are part of a genre known as the “Benin bronzes.” These bronze sculptures were created from at least the 16th century to decorate the royal court in Benin, according to the British Museum.

In 1897, British forces launched a “bloody and devastating” military occupation of the Benin Kingdom and thousands of artworks were stolen and taken to the United Kingdom as “spoils of war,” the museum said.

The Horniman’s Benin collection also includes other brass objects looted during the occupation, such as an altar piece, bells, fans and baskets.

“We very much welcome this decision by the Trustees of the Horniman Museum and Gardens,” said Abba Tijani, director general of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, in the release.

“Following the endorsement by the Charity Commission, we look forward to a productive discussion on loan agreements and collaborations between the National Commission for Museums and Monuments and the Horniman,” Tijani said.

The decision comes as a victory for Nigeria and other African countries that have fought to recover cultural artifacts seized during military occupation and held in museums, mostly in Europe, but also in the United States and Australia.

Nigeria’s national commission requested the return of the items in January, the Horniman said. Some of the objects may still be lent to the Horniman for display and research, according to the release.

Eve Salomon, chair of the museum’s trustees, called the transfer “moral and appropriate.”

“The evidence is very clear that these objects were acquired through force, and external consultation supported our view that it is both moral and appropriate to return their ownership to Nigeria,” Salomon said in the release. “The Horniman is pleased to be able to take this step and we look forward to working with the NCMM to secure longer term care for these precious artefacts.”

The Horniman follows in the footsteps of several other museums that have returned their looted Benin bronzes to Nigeria.

In February, the University of Aberdeen and Cambridge University’s Jesus College returned two Benin bronzes. Last year, the French government returned 26 artworks seized from Benin in 1892.

And in November of 2021, the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art in Washington, DC, removed all of its Benin bronzes from display and announced plans to repatriate them.

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