German bureaucracy slows artifacts' return

17 Jul

A royal delegation from Western Cameroon's Bangwa region made physical contact with a looted sculpture for the first time in more than 100 years on Saturday. 


The artifact — known as a lefem — is one of many commemorative sculptures that was taken during Germany's colonial conquest of the Central African nation. "Taking this artifact into captivity far from its environment deprived us of the natural and spiritual protection which we were provided by our ancestors," said King of Bangwa Asabaton Fontem Njifua of Bangwa at the ceremony.

"Its return is the beginning of ending the agony of collective punishment which generations of our ancestors endured and are still enduring." Cologne's Rautenstrauch Joest Museum on Saturday held a ceremonial event for the artifact's return with the delegation. But they left empty-handed.

While the museum wishes to restore the sculpture to community leaders, the restitution of looted artifacts held by Germany's museums is governed by a bureaucratic process. The final decision rests with the City of Cologne and its council.

Lefem's absence felt for generations

The sculpture is one of many lefem sculptures crafted to embody the spirit of Bangwa chiefs. It was stolen from the Bangwa around 1898 by a German military lieutenant during a violent raid. He donated it to a museum in north-central Germany in 1902. It was later obtained by a collector in Düsseldorf in 1955 and given to the Rautenstrauch Joest Museum in 1966.

The lefem's absence has been felt by each generation. Western Cameroon is at the heart of a prolonged war and the Bangwa region is a particularly hard-hit area. Bangwa leaders say that the absence of the statue serves as a constant reminder of the chaos and devastation felt by the community.

"What we want is that these artifacts will go back to its natural environment. It will go back to people who suffered the loss. People who suffered the collective trauma over the years. It is not a matter of politics," said Chief Fuatabong Achaleke Taku, a royal member of the Bangwa and a key figure behind the sculpture's restitution.

"It is a matter of fundamental human rights that the artifact will go back to the community." Members of the Bangwa grew up understanding the history of artifacts looted during German colonization of Cameroon, Chief Taku told DW. This helped inspire him on his path for the lefem's return. Although those memories came with pain, this historical knowledge was the key necessary to reclaim the Bangwa's looted works from German museums.

Bureaucracy behind restitution in Germany

There has been a stated mission for the restitution of looted objects held in Germany since 2019. In the years that have followed, Germany has added transparency to the restitution process by setting guidelines for museums on the repatriation of stolen artifacts. While the path to return is clearer than before, the process is still not easy. 

In order to make a request for a return a country or community member must first identify what the object is and where it is being held. While some museums digitize their collections so they can be better identified, others do not.

The requester of the artifact must then prove ownership of the object through provenance research. This research investigates creation and the transfer of ownership throughout the object's life. Some museums keep provenance records. However, the manifest does at times contain information gaps. In this case, the burden to prove ownership falls on the requestor.  

One of the last barriers in Germany's restitution process is the federal states or local authorities who oversee the museums in Germany. It is up to them to make the final OK for return.

One OK is not enough

Museum Director Nanette Snoep and her team is dedicated to seeing the sculpture go back the Bangwa community, but her OK is not enough. A key holdout in the return of the lefem is the City of Cologne, the municipality that oversees the museum indicated the director. 

"It is up to the city of Cologne to decide … I am trying to convince the city that this sculpture will be returned to the Bangwa," said Snoep. "The question is, what is the political will of the City of Cologne?" she added. Germany's museums have to negotiate with the delicate powers shared between them and municipal bodies in the country for restitution claims. 

A city official who attended the meeting said that he would also like to see the statue and other relics the museum holds, like more than 90 Benin Bronzes, returned as well — but the city is still at the beginning of the process. 

Cologne's city council to decide 

"At the end it is the decision of the council," said Stefan Charles, Deputy Mayor of Fine Arts and Culture for the City of Cologne. "I will prepare the council as well as I can. I will bring up the pros and cons."

While negotiating the return of the Benin Bronzes held at the museum is currently a top priority for the council Charles said he was "convinced that we will agree to the restitution of the Benin bronzes and whatever follows." 

However, he added, the council is also bound to partners and the government who are tasked with checking legal aspects of return. "We are not making this decision on our own. We have partners with museums in Germany and beyond and also on a governmental level in Berlin," said Charles.

To the royal Bangwa envoy return of the lefem sculpture is imminent. They see the letter of invitation given to them by the museum for Saturday's ceremony as a clear indication that it will finally come home. "The wording of the letter of invitation from this museum and from the mayor showed that there was a realistic opportunity that if we came with the king we could regain the humanity that was stolen from us. That is what motivated me and that is why we are here," said Chief Taku. 


Edited by Keith Walker

Author Alexandria Williams

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