Loot. 10 Stories

Plaster casts of the Benin bronzes

The term “Benin Bronzes” refers to a group of memorial heads, sculptures, plaques, and other artefacts consisting of various material, mainly brass and bronze. As culturally significant objects from the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria, they were moulded in the early twentieth century and offered for sale as plaster casts. The historcial plaster models and moulds on view here are from the collection of the Gipsformerei, the Staatliche Museen’s traditional plaster-casting workshop. The painted versions served as models for the Gipsformerei’s painters and look as much as the original objects as possible.

Around 5,000 objects stolen from Benin are stored in 131 institutions around the world. The renowned “Benin Bronzes” symbolise the colonial injustice associated with the Western craze for collecting. In 1884 the Berlin Conference divided the African continent among several European countries. Benin, in Nigeria, became a British territory. The majority of Benin collections in museums all over the world can be traced back to the looting of Benin City in 1897. At that time, the British occupiers were guilty of mass murder, destruction, and plundering in the Kingdom of Benin. The Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin also profited from this infamous conflict, creating one of the largest collections of Benin art in the world.

Discussions about the future of the “Benin Bronzes” have been ongoing between European museums and Nigerian parties since 2010. The Benin Dialogue Group laid the foundations for intergovernmental summits to negotiate restitution. In 2022 the Ethnologisches Museum in Berlin transferred the ownership of more than 500 original “Benin Bronzes” to Nigeria. A special exhibition on the second floor of the Humboldt Forum takes these recent processes into account.

The return of the pieces also means the end of the sale of plaster casts in Berlin. This has raised new questions: Who decides whether it is permissible for replicas of the original Bronzes to be produced? Should restitution of the objects mean handing over the rights of reproduction as well? What potential do replicas have for Benin exhibitions in the future? Museum institutions and their partners in Nigeria are seriously debating these questions.

Trade and production

For more than 500 years, the Kingdom of Benin, located west of the Niger Delta, was a major regional power in West Africa. What remains of its territory today lies in Nigeria (not in the neighbouring country of Benin). Close trade relations between the Kingdom of Benin and Europe existed as early as the 15th century. European traders brought materials to the region, among them the brass that Benin artists used to produce the so-called “Benin Bronzes”. Contact with Europe is also evident in the subjects Benin artists chose at the time, for a number of artworks depict Portuguese merchants and soldiers.

Historical and artistic value

When the looted “Benin Bronzes” arrived in Europe in the late 19th century, their origins were initially unknown. At the time, African art was still thought to be primitive. But after the German curator Felix von Luschan described the objects as “art,” international demand exploded. Buyers were drawn to the objects mainly for their aesthetics and artistic craftsmanship; their original spiritual and historical significance was of no interest to them. In their original context, that is, within the royal palace of Benin, the artworks served as visual representations of the Kingdom’s official history. They were also used during ancestor worship.

The “Benin Bronzes” return home

Upon its establishment in 2010, the Benin Dialogue Group undertook the first steps towards cooperation with Nigerian representatives. The immediate goal was the return of the “Benin Bronzes.” In July 2022, Germany and Nigeria reached an agreement regarding the repatriation of the objects. The ownership of the 514 items in the collection of the Ethnologisches Museum Berlin was transferred to Nigeria. However, of the repatriated artworks, 168 remain in the museum in Berlin as loan objects. They will be used to reflect on their history as looted artefacts, to contemplate their significance as part of Nigeria’s cultural heritage, and to shed light on the return process. Training of Nigerian curators, strengthening of the country’s cultural infrastructure, and promotion of its contemporary art scene are also underway.


Shortly after the “Benin Bronzes” arrived in Germany, the Gipsformerei – a Berlin institution that has produced plaster casts of famous works of art since 1819 – started making replicas of these works. Copies of two royal thrones played a role in an early restitution case. When King Akenzua II requested the return of two royal thrones in 1935, the German museum merely offered the king plaster replicas at his own expense. Since the transfer of ownership of the original Bronzes to Nigeria in 2022, their further replication has ceased. Though, due to their historical significance, existing replicas continue to be used for research purposes.

The Objects in the Exhibition

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Loot. 10 Stories