It’s Been a Watershed Year for the Restitution of African Artworks. But What About Objects Stolen From the Continent Next Door?
European colonialism—and all the art and loot that was acquired because of it—was a global project.
In late 1882, a German expedition landed on Luf, the largest of the Hermit Islands in the Bismarck Archipelago, in the South Pacific. Over the course of a few days, German marines raided the island, destroyed villages, and massacred the native population. The few dozen islanders who survived were robbed of their livelihoods as what was left of a fleet of hundreds of formidable wooden boats was taken to imperial Germany. The last of its kind now sits in Berlin.
The Luf Boat is one of the highlights of the Humboldt Forum, the €680 million ($800 million) reconstructed palace set to open this fall. The Ethnological Museum of Berlin, one of the museums inside the Humboldt Forum, has long maintained that this object, which spans over 50 feet and has a 32-foot sail, was properly acquired, and that the German tradesman who brought it to Berlin in the 19th century helped save it from dereliction.
But that claim may have run aground. In a new book, German historian Götz Aly debunks the institution’s narrative. The Magnificent Boat: How Germans Stole the Art Treasures of the South Seas connects the vessel’s history to what he calls a genocide that was taking place on the South Pacific islands around the same time.
Such revelations are surfacing amid growing calls for restitution of objects from colonial contexts—a subject that gained steam in Europe and North America after French President Emmanuel Macron announced on a visit Burkina Faso in 2018 that he would return looted artworks and commissioned a major report on the matter.
Earlier this year, Germany’s Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees a formidable collection of African art, became the first institution to formalize a vow to return Benin bronzes to Nigeria by 2022.
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