Germany handed over to Colombia on Friday two masks made by the Indigenous Kogi people that had been in a Berlin museum’s collection for more than a century, another step in the country’s restitution of cultural artifacts as European nations reappraise their colonial-era past.
The wooden “sun masks,” which date back to the mid-15th century, were handed over at the presidential palace during a visit to Berlin by Colombian President Gustavo Petro. The decision to restitute them follows several years of contacts between Berlin’s museum authority and Colombia, and an official Colombian request last year for their return.
“We know that the masks are sacred to the Kogi,” who live in the Sierra Nevada de Santa Marta mountains of northern Colombia, German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier said at the ceremony. “May these masks have a good journey back to where they are needed, and where they are still a bridge between people and nature today.”
Petro welcomed the return of “these magic masks,” and said he hopes that “more and more pieces can be recovered.” He said at a later news conference with Germany’s chancellor that the Kogi community will ultimately decide what happens with the masks. He added: “I would like a museum in Santa Marta, but that’s my idea and we have to wait for their idea.”
Konrad Theodor Preuss, who was the curator of the forerunner of today’s Ethnological Museum in Berlin, acquired the masks in 1915, during a lengthy research trip to Colombia on which he accumulated more than 700 objects. According to the German capital’s museums authority, he wasn’t aware of their age or of the fact they weren’t supposed to be sold.
“This restitution is part of a rethink of how we deal with our colonial past, a process that has begun in many European countries,” Steinmeier said. “And I welcome the fact that Germany is playing a leading role in this.”
Governments and museums in Europe and North America have increasingly sought to resolve ownership disputes over objects that were looted during colonial times.
Last year, Germany and Nigeria signed an agreement paving the way for the return of hundreds of artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes that were taken from Africa by a British colonial expedition more than 120 years ago. Nigerian officials hope that accord will prompt other countries that hold the artifacts, which ended up spread far and wide, to follow suit.
Hermann Parzinger, the head of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which oversees the Ethnological Museum and others in Berlin, noted that the background is particularly complex in the case of the Kogi masks.
They weren’t “stolen in a violent context” and Colombia was already long since an independent country, he said. Preuss bought them from the heir of a Kogi priest, who “apparently wasn’t entitled to sell these masks” — meaning that their acquisition “wasn’t quite correct.”
“But there is another aspect in this discussion of colonial contexts, and that is the rights of Indigenous people,” Parzinger added, pointing to a 2007 U.N. resolution stating that artifacts of spiritual and cultural significance to Indigenous groups should be returned.