Austria takes first step to return artefacts from colonial era

Though country was not a colonial power, major museums in Vienna have acquisitions of colonial goods

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Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum collection includes a number of Benin bronzes © KHM-Museumsverband

Vienna’s Kunsthistorisches Museum collection includes a number of Benin bronzes © KHM-Museumsverband

Austria is planning to set up a panel to evaluate restitution claims for artefacts acquired in the colonial era and expects to give details “in the coming weeks,” a spokesman for the culture ministry said.

The biggest collections of colonial-era acquisitions in Austria are located in the Weltmuseum (World Museum) and the Natural History Museum in Vienna. The Weltmuseum is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, which was set up to discuss the future of Benin bronzes in Western collections.

Several Western museums have returned or pledged to return Benin bronzes to Nigeria. In October, Germany and Nigeria signed an agreement setting out a timetable for the return of around 1,100 Benin artefacts from German museums, with the first repatriations envisaged in the second quarter of 2022.

The Austrian culture ministry said it could not yet give details of the planned commission as talks are still ongoing. But a person involved in the discussions said the commission will also comprise representatives of potential claimant nations.

Though Austria was not a colonial power, it benefited from trade agreements and Austrian merchants and explorers acquired colonial goods. The Weltmuseum, for example, is researching the acquisition history of a collection of East African artefacts assembled in 1884 and 1885 by Emmerich Billitzer, an Austrian naval doctor.

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