Back to Africa Update

From Restitution to Digitalization: Looted Benin Treasures to Go Online.

By Dr. Kwame Opoku


Pair of leopard figures, now in Her Majesty, the Queen of the United Kingdom, Admiral Rawson Collection. London, UK. The commanders of the British Punitive Expedition force to Benin in 1897 sent the pair of leopards to the British Queen soon after the looting and burning of Benin City.

‘We, Europeans, who have received and transmitted and continue to transmit these objects, are on the side of the conquerors. To a certain extent, this is also a ‘heritage that weighs us down’But there is no fatalityThe good news is that in 2017 the history of Europe being what it is and has also been for centuries, a history of enmity between our nations of bloody wars and discriminations painfully overcome after the Second World War, we have within ourselves the sources and resources to understand the sadness, or the anger or hatred of those who, in other tropics, much further away, poorer, weaker, and have been subjected in the past to the intensive absorbing power of our continent. Or to put it simply: it would be sufficient today to make a very tiny effort of introspection and a slight step aside for us to enter into empathy with the dispossessed peoples.’’ Bénédicte Savoy (1)

We read with great interest a recent article in the Art Newspaper online of 17th April 2020, entitled Looted Benin treasures to go online in international project led by Hamburg Museum. The subtitle declares that ‘Project is backed by Ernst von Siemens foundation which seeks’ a more factual focus to the discussions about restitution.’ (2)

According to the report, the project is spearheaded by Hamburg’s Museum am Rothenbaum to unite 5,000 Benin art treasures consisting of wood, bronze and ivory objects that were looted by a British invasion force in in Benin in1897. The report adds that these Benin artefacts are spread round the world. Our readers will remember that the looted Benin artefacts are not spread around the world but are concentrated in Western museums. We were somewhat surprised by the figure of 5000 mentioned in the report. We have always assumed that the total number of artefacts looted by the British troops in Benin in 1897 was between 3000 and 3500. Barbara Plankensteiner in her book, Benin, puts the figure at 2,400-4,000 whilst Prince Edun Akenzua in his Memorandum to the British Parliament in 2000 put the total figure at ‘more than 3000’.

The report further states that the Ernst von Siemens foundation has allocated more than Euro1.2m for the project planned in co-operation with the Benin Dialogue Group.

The team organising this platform to be launched in 2022 is led by Barbara Plankensteiner, director of the Museum am Rothenbaum, Hamburg. Readers will recall that when 3 Benin artefacts were found by the Hamburg Arts and Craft Museum to have been undoubtedly looted, they were not returned to Benin City but handed over to the Museum at Rothenbaum which now holds 200 looted Benin artefacts.

It is reported that the secretary-general of the Ernst von Siemens Foundation, Martens Hoermes, declared that:’My wish is that this project adds a more factual focus to the discussions about restitution in providing a reliable basis for the assessment of the holdings and promotes a non-confrontational exchange and co-operation.

Obviously, the Foundation has been advised by a one-sided group with its own interest in mind that did not give a true history of the question of the restitution of Benin artefacts since the notorious looting in 1897. The Secretary-General of the Ernst von Siemen Foundation has clearly not been informed that the European Museums, including the British Museum, have not been ready to give full account of their holdings and that even today, we do not know exactly how many of the looted artefacts are held by the venerable museum in Bloomsbury. A museum such as the Ethnological Museum, Berlin. that has given us some idea about its holdings has, often given us variable figures, no doubt due to exchange, sale, and other transfers. Moreover, the creation of the Humboldt Forum has tended to throw even more doubt about the numbers and their whereabouts.

Is Mr. Hoermes aware that the European museums have always refused to restitute any of the stolen artefacts and have only poured scorn and contempt on African efforts to recover artefacts looted during the oppressive, racist, and cruel European colonial rule? European museums, with some other allies no doubt, consider any request for restitution as confrontational by Africans who did not crawl before them in awe and humility but insisted on the rights of Africans as human beings whose rights have been violated by violent colonial plunderers. Their expectations are disturbed by simple demands for justice by Africans who see through all their baseless arguments.

It is of course left to any group of persons or institutions to make up their own views about colonial rule, its plunders and oppression. Most Africans take the view, also accepted by President Macron, that colonialism was a crime against humanity. European oppressive domination in most parts of Africa was clearly not with the consent of the Africans thus subjected to oppressive alien domination. The United Nations has been calling for restitution of looted African artefacts since 1972 but the holders of the looted artefacts have paid no attentionIndeed, it is only after the recent Sarr-Savoy report in 2018 that many European museums have shown any interest in discussing restitution. (3)

But even now European museums have not reconciled themselves to the idea that it is time to return the African treasures stolen over hundred years ago. They have offered all sorts of excuses and explanations for their unwillingness or inability to accept that stealing the property of others is wrong. They have offered in the past digitalization as alternative to physical restitution of looted objects. How do we know that the present project of putting 5000 looted artefacts online, a worthwhile project in itself, is not largely motivated by an abiding desire to postpone restitution? It could be presumed that the digitalization of 5000 artefacts could provide a legitimate excuse for not restituting the Benin artefacts. Indeed, the Benin Dialogue Group which is said to be cooperating with the project has decisively rejected restitution of the Benin artefacts.

It may also interest Hoermes to recall that other foundations have decided to put $15m at the disposal of projects demanding restitution of looted African artefacts. The considerations leading to such a decision may be very revealing and fruitful, concentrating on the facts of African deprivation and European intransigence which is, in the end, the continuation of arrogance, racism and prolongation of a desire and determination to dominate Africans.

The Siemens Foundation may wish to examine what has led to what they consider as confrontation. They would realize that this situation has been brought about largely by the refusal of the holders of looted objects to admit once and for all that the colonial period, with its racist and fascist methods of violence, has left many people in Africa without most of their artefacts. It is surely no accident that the examination of the German colonial robbery of artefacts and human remains has led directly to examination of German colonial domination in Africa and its pre-Nazi methods, laying bare the relations between Nazism and German colonial methods. The extermination order of Lothar von Trotha, Maji-Maji atrocities and German genocide of the Herero and Nama all immediately spring to mind. One realises that the evil methods of the Nazis evolved from experiences and methods of German colonialism that were further developed. Concentration camps forced unpaid labour, racist confiscations of properties and cattle, and atrocities exercised against African women appear in their naked nature of unlimited evil and desire for material gains at the expense of African peoples considered racially inferior, as proclaimed by Dr. Eugen Fischer and Felix von Luschan. This is where one should look for explanations of the emotional and moral dilemmas of those involved in attempts to defend indefensible oppression and domination and not in any confrontational restitution debates.

In other words, the acrimony and moral confusion that are revealed in recent debates are not inherent in the restitution demands themselves. They result from the unwillingness or inability of Europeans to acknowledge the evil nature of colonial methods. Europeans generally condemn and acknowledge the evil racist nature of the Nazi regime and methods. They are willing to apologize for the genocide and atrocities exercised against European victims of Nazi brutalities and crimes, but they are not willing to do the same for Africans. Traditional racism prevents them from saying ‘sorry’ to Africans This patent racism involves them in all kinds of unimaginable difficulties. This is the background of recent discussions on restitutions. The difficulties in discussing restitution lie far beyond artefacts and are much deeper that they appear. They go to the roots of the relationship between Africans and Europeans. That is why the sub-title of the Sarr-Savoy report is: Toward a New Relational Ethics. Many have clearly not understood the significance of this sub-title.

Hoermes should read some of the writings and statements by German ministers and officials. One recalls various disgraceful attacks on Bénédicte Savoy when the Sarr-Savoy report came out recommending restitution of African artefacts taken away without the consent of their owners. Some high officials tried to present Dr. Savoy as an ignorant person, unaware of museums and their problems whilst refusing to accord to Professor Savoy the respect due to a professor at Collège de France and at the Technical University Berlin. Some even went as far as to say that Felwine Sarr, a professor of Economics from Senegal, had not even visited a museum before he was appointed by President Macron to examine the issues of restitution and present a report. The low level of thought and behaviour when African interests oblige Europeans to make concessions or face their own historical responsibility towards Africa, seems to know no limits.

Anyone who carefully studies the history of the restitution debate will realize that almost every argument presented by the holders of looted artefacts involves an insult to the African peoples. Statements that Africans cannot look after their own artefacts that have been stolen with military violence by Europeans amount to racial insults. Constant attacks on the quality of African museums involve aspersions on the abilities of African museum officials and their governments. These feeble arguments have nothing to do with the question of ownership and restitution. Such arguments would not be offered to victims of Nazi spoliation who are mainly of European origin. Incidentally, there is as yet no study comparing in detail the approach of German governments to restitution for victims of Nazi oppression and their approach to restitution for African victims of German colonization. Such a study could reveal interesting perspectives.

We have never heard anyone use the word ’confrontational’ with respect to discussions between German authorities and representatives of victims of Nazi atrocities and confiscations. The two sides seem to respect each other, and the demands are recognized as reasonable and, in many cases, supported by law. They do not in any way put in question the status quo. When Africans present demands to European officials we have two sides where traditionally, one side does not really respect the other. The demands by Africans are considered as unreasonable and not provided by the law. They are seen as attempting to upset the status quo by asking for what many European scholars consider as unreasonable: they seek the return of their looted artefacts that Europeans stole and have kept for over hundred years. They challenge the European order which considers as legitimate the keeping of looted artefacts of Africans and other peoples. Indeed, many have banned moral considerations from restitution discussions.

Europeans have become so used to insulting Africans that they no longer recognize insults such as offering to loan to Africans their looted artefacts by the same people that stole them in the first place. Imagine someone who has stolen my Mercedes Benz generously offering to loan it to me for a short period!

When Africans have asked for restitution of their looted artefacts, Europeans have declared that there has been no request for restitutionAnyone who challenges unfounded European assertions is considered to be confrontational. Our former colonial masters do not recognize in plain talk the humiliated and fearful, diffident Africans they are used to and actually feel threatened by anyone who insists on the human rights of African peoples to own and determine the location and use of their own artefacts. The arrogance and hypocrisy of Europeans in this area are simply astonishing. Our contemporary Europeans have generally not shown themselves any different or better than their predecessors who actually stole African artefacts with violence. They still repeat the arguments and insults of past centuries. They may condemn colonialism but are unwilling to return any of the object’s colonialists stole from Africa.

In view of the colossal damages that Africans suffered from Europeans in slavery and colonialism with massacres and other atrocities, and the wealth Europeans gained that still forms part of their economic power, are confrontational restitution discussions a big price for Europeans to pay?

We were intrigued by the image of the pair of Benin leopard sculpture that the Art Newspaper used in its report and were reminded of the great Ekpo Eyo’s statement about establishing museums in Nigeria:

And in Benin, where some of the famous Benin bronzes left after the British Punitive Expedition of 1897 are exhibited. However, most of the items now on display were brought back to the country as a result of open sales and private negotiations after Nigeria's independence in 1960. Sadly, some pieces on display today in the museum are replicas of the original Benin pieces taken away during the Punitive Expedition and sold in England to defray the costs of the expedition. Appeals were made by Nigeria during some UNESCO (United Nations Scientific, Cultural and Educational Organization) conferences for the return of some…only some! of the looted pieces, but these appeals yielded not a single response.” (4)

The British Museum that has never wanted to return looted artefacts, sold Benin artefacts to Nigeria. The museum instigated the issuance of the notorious Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums (2002) which it cleverly did not sign since it wanted to use the statement as a shield against claims by Greece to the Parthenon Marbles and all other claims from those who have not accepted quietly the looting of their artefacts.

On looking up information on the leopard’s sculpture, we read the following from Plankensteiner:’ This pair of altar figures has had an eventful history. In 1930 they were purchased. Originally owned by an expedition member, they were purchased by Charles Raton, who presented them at the major Benin expedition at the Trocadero in Paris in 1932, and again in 1935 in the historic exhibition ‘African Negro Art’ at New York’s Museum of Modern Art. They were subsequently acquired by Louis Carré and were purchased for the new national museum in Lagos in 1952.’ (5)

Was the choice of this pair of leopards rather than the pair in the Queen of the United Kingdom, Admiral Rawson Collection, for the newspaper article accidental? Do we see here an attempt to say that the Nigerian National Commission also has some of the Benin artefacts looted in 1897 without pointing out how they were acquired? Is this an effort to reduce the moral burden on the European museums and States?

When the propaganda in favour of substituting digital versions for physical returns of Benin artefacts to the owners, was raging, we decided to make virtual visits to the major museums holding looted Benin artefacts. The aim was to see if these presentations could in anyway be substituted for physical returns. Our conclusion was: ‘an emphatic negation of any proposition that virtual vision is anywhere near an adequate alternative to physical restitution of looted artefacts. Indeed, in view of our experience, one wonders on what basis anyone could even dare to think of proposing virtual vision as alternative to physical restitution of looted cultural artefacts.’ (6) The European museums could also consider making replicas of the objects that interest them whilst the originals are returned to the legitimate owners in Benin.


Queen-mother Idia, Benin, Nigeria, now in Humboldt Forum, Berlin, Germany. Would she come back home to Benin City on a temporary loan or would she remain a virtual personality or return unconditionally?

Undoubtedly, technology has advanced considerably since our last virtual visit to the major museums but the fundamental objections of principle we raised about the adequacy of substituting virtual representation for the physical looted objects still remain. Should technological advances make virtual representation as good as the physical objects, this logic would also apply to arguing that the European museums have no reason for keeping the physical objects which should be returned to the owners. Europeans do not practise Benin culture.

Are we to see in this effort of digitalization a silent consensus of the parties to move from restitution to digitalization without raising the issue of restitution? The issue of restitution excites and irritates Europeans whenever it is raised, and some Africans may have resigned themselves to this fact and prefer to concentrate on whatever they can obtain from Europeans. But the majority of Nigerians and other Africans do not share this opinion. They ask themselves whether Europeans must always win. Many Africans would ask what the whole Benin dialogue was about if the singular important issue facing our cultures, the restitution of those artefacts looted by Europeans, mostly with force, could not be resolved.

We wait to see which Benin artefacts would be put online and how long it would take to put online the 5000 artefacts. The time required to implement this project and to complete the new museum in Benin as well as the current pandemic could gain time for the illegal holders of Benin artefacts. They have up to now not admitted that it was wrong to steal African artefacts with violence.

We look forward to the completion of this digitalization project which could help us in answering several questions concerning Benin artefacts such as the present whereabouts of the 400 Benin artefacts that were in the Field Museum, Chicago. We will probably know how many of the looted artefacts are still in the Bloomsbury Museum. The variable figures given by the Berlin Ethnology Museum could become clearer

We should remember that any solution accepted by Nigeria will be used as precedent against other African States such as Ethiopia that have rejected the idea of loans and are asking simply for the restitution of their looted artefacts. Many Africans are looking up to Nigeria to give the right leadership in restitution matters but certainly not at any price.

There are many ways to develop relationships besides returning museum objects. Informally, it also appears that the different kinds of collaboration that are currently in progress are important to Nigerian museums. That might explain why Nigeria has not registered any formal demand for the return of the Benin collections, but has preferred to engage in dialogue and cooperation. It seems that Nigeria is chary of bringing the matter to a head. How does one otherwise explain that the National Museum of Nigeria was willing to lend its extensive and unique collection of Ife art to the British Museum for a special exhibition in 2010, without demanding reciprocity?” (7)

Wilhelm Östberg, former director Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm.

Kwame Opoku.

Commemorative head of an Oba, Benin, Nigeria, now in Weltmuseum Wien, Austria.


  1. Bénédicte Savoy, Objets du désir. Désir d’objets Histoire culturelle du patrimoine artistique en Europe. XVIIIe–XXe siècles Leçon inaugurale prononcée auCollège de France le 30 mars 2017

  1. Looted Benin treasures to go online in international project led › news › benin-treasures-ha.
  2. Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy,

The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics.restitution › sarr_savoy_en

  1. Ekpo Eyo, From Shrines to Showcases: Masterpieces of Nigerian Art, 2010, Federal Ministry of Information and Communication, Abuja, p.32.
  2. Barbara Plankensteiner, Benin,5 Continents Editions, Milan, 2010, p.115.6.
  3. K .Opoku, Virtual Visits To Museums Holding Looted Benin Objects › news › virtual-visits-to-muse..
  4. Wilhelm Östberg, former director of Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, was reflecting on the collaboration between Nigerian authorities and Western museums, including his own museum which staged an exhibition on Benin art,Wilhelm Östberg, Whose Objects? Art Treasures from the Kingdom of Benin in the collection of the Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm, 2010, p.68.

Oba Ovonramwen in whose reign the British looted the Benin Bronzes with guards on board a ship on his way to exile in Calabar in 1897. The gown he is wearing hides his shackles. Photograph by the Ibani Ijo photographer J. A. Green. From the Howie photo album in the archives of the Merseyside Maritime Museum


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