LONDON (AP) – A Cambridge University college handed over a bronze rooster looted in 19th-century Africa to Nigerian authorities on Wednesday, as part of a modest but growing effort in some European countries to return African art taken by the colonial powers.
Jesus College is the first British institution to return one of the artifacts known as the Benin bronzes. Speaking ahead of Wednesday’s ceremony, university teacher Sonita Alleyne called it a “momentous occasion”.
British colonial forces took the Okukor statue in 1897 from the Court of Benin in what is now Nigeria – among thousands of works of art seized by occupying troops – and it was donated in college in 1905.
The college withdrew the bronze from public view in 2016 after students protested, claiming it was a colonial narrative. The college set up a working group which concluded that the statue belonged to the Oba of Benin, leader of the historic Eweka dynasty of the Empire of Benin. The empire was centered in Benin City in present-day Nigeria.
His Royal Majesty, Oba of Benin, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Ewuare II, welcomed the handover decision. “We really hope that others will expedite the return of our works of art, which in many cases have religious significance to us,” he said in a statement.
Hundreds of seized Benin bronzes ended up in the British Museum in London, and hundreds more were sold to other collections such as the Ethnological Museum in Berlin. Germany said this year that it would return the items in its possession.
The British Museum announced Monday that it was working on a collaboration with Nigeria, linked to the construction of a new museum in the West African country, which will “bring together Beninese works of art from international collections “. The museum has also been engaged for decades in a bitter struggle with the Greek government over the return of the Elgin Marbles, or Parthenon.
Such returns are controversial in Europe, where many museums hold works acquired during colonial times.
Across the Channel, the French president on Wednesday announced the “legitimate return to the country” of 26 looted colonial-era objects sent to the government of Benin – some of the estimated 90,000 African works of art kept in the French museums.
The anthropomorphic wooden statues, royal thrones and sacred altars in the collection known as the “Treasures of Abomey” were looted by the French army 129 years ago and are currently on display in Paris before being delivered to Benin on November 9.
President Emmanuel Macron visited the exhibition on Wednesday with Beninese Foreign Minister Aurélien Agbenonci, who called it a “historic moment”.
Describing his long-standing efforts to recover the work, the foreign minister said: “No one could have predicted this happy outcome … given the number of obstacles.”
The 26 works are “an undeniable part of the cultural and religious identity of our country,” he said, calling the restitution a key step towards Benin’s efforts to develop its cultural sector and create jobs.
Macron is the first French president to call for the systematic restitution of colonial art, but admitted that only two items have been returned so far: a sword in Senegal and a crown in Madagascar. He called for “a law that would create a long-term framework for restitution” to facilitate these art transfers.
“These works will return home. They will find the men and women who will understand the full power behind these works, ”said Macron. “Their return home is a legitimate return home.”