Museum officials in the United States took a historic step by returning 30 valuable bronze artifacts to their original home in Nigeria. In an October 11 ceremony, Nigerian cultural officials regained custody of bronze sculptures that had been displayed in two U.S. museums in Washington: 29 bronzes from the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art and one from the National Gallery of Art.
“Not only was returning ownership of these magnificent artifacts to their rightful home the right thing to do, it also demonstrates how we all benefit from cultural institutions making ethical choices,” said Lonnie Bunch, secretary of the Smithsonian, at the ceremony.
The sculptures, known as the Benin Bronzes, belonged to the Kingdom of Benin, located in present-day Nigeria, and were stolen during the 1897 British raid on Benin City. In subsequent years, an estimated 3,000 artifacts appeared in public and private collections worldwide. Smithsonian officials voted in June to return the bronzes, and the transfer represents the first of its kind since the museum announced an ethical return policy.
A British museum said in August it would transfer 72 items looted in 1897 to the Nigerian government. In January 2022 the U.S. and Nigerian governments signed an agreement to prevent the looting and trafficking of Nigeria’s cultural property.
The “agreement is about learning from the past and about recording by this agreement our partnership to preserve, restore, and protect Nigeria’s diverse cultural heritage,” said Mary Beth Leonard, the U.S. ambassador to the Federal Republic of Nigeria, at the January signing. She said the pact also facilitates a “more robust collaboration” between U.S. and Nigerian authorities to identify, intercept, repatriate and protect cultural property and related heritage works.
The U.S. government has partnered with Nigeria on multiple cultural preservation projects valued at $1.2 million during the past 20 years through the State Department’s U.S. Ambassadors Fund for Cultural Preservation. U.S. museum officials are working with their Nigerian counterparts to coordinate the future return of additional artifacts.