Looted goods in the Humboldt Forum

Were the exhibits really acquired in good faith? And are we allowed to keep them?

The Humboldt Forum opens this week. Its debut is revealing more than just art.
The Humboldt Forum opens this week. Its debut is revealing more than just art.Berliner Zeitung/Markus Wächter

Berlin-In August 2019, Nigerian ambassador Yusuf Tuggar asked Chancellor Angela Merkel to return hundreds of pieces - the world-famous Benin bronzes - from Berlin's ethnological collection that will be exhibited in the Humboldt Forum. Because Ambassador Tuggar never got an answer, he took to Twitter to ask when and how Merkel would respond.

British marines destroyed the kingdom of Benin, situated on the Niger River, in 1887. They ransacked the capital by burning and shooting their way through the town, which was home to 50,000. They looted "probably about 10,000 bronzes, ivory carvings and other objects". Dan Hicks, a professor of archaeology and anthropology at Oxford, recently detailed the thefts and how the goods were subsequently given away and hawked in Europe in his book, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution. Hicks uses the adjective "brutish" to allude to the British Museum, which also has hundreds of Benin treasures stashed away.

It would help the discussions in Berlin if the book would quickly appear in German. Provenance research isn't necessary for the Benin bronzes but you wouldn't know it by checking the public but deliberatlely obtuse database of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), which oversees local museums and heritage sites. For example, entering "Benin Webster William" yields 58 hits with wonderful bronze objects from the 15th to 18th centuries. There's no comment on the murderous, violent attack, nor about the circumstances of how the bronzes were acquired. Instead, William Downing Webster is listed only as the "collector." The man, however, was a fence who ran London's W.D. Webster auction house and sold off what had been looted in Benin in the name of the predatory, murderous arsonists.

Nevertheless, in 2017, SPK President Hermann Parzinger said during a conversation about possibly looted artworks in his foundation's collections: "According to the law, we don't have to return art looted by the Nazis either." But he then added that there would be, in this case, a "a moral obligation" to the descendants of persecuted and murdered Jews.

That is why there's restitution "regardless of the legal situation." In other words: Parzinger doesn't see either a legal or a moral obligation towards colonially subjugated peoples who were the victims of plundering. Immune to the facts, he believes that the cultural goods in the Ethnological Museum under his purview, which were mostly looted, were "acquired in good faith".

While the same handful of decolonisation activists and purifiers of allegedly offensive street names who are propped up by Berlin politicians with tax money may now be rejoicing, they should be careful. The kingdom of Benin was only able to exist for so long and produce such important works of art because the members of its Black upper class were robust participants in the slave trade and sold hundreds of thousands of Africans to the British, French and especially the Dutch.

History holds no simple truths.