“It was a mistake to steal these bronzes. It was wrong to keep these bronzes and it took too long to return these bronzes to their homes,” she said at the event.
Cast in brass and brass with an antique look, the sculptures were used in ceremonies to honor ancestors and Benin rulers.
Nigerian authorities say more than 5,000 antiquities are estimated to have been stolen from Nigeria by Britain when it was a colony.
Most of the treasure was stolen from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin – now part of southern Nigeria – and some were eventually put under house arrest by other foreign governments including Germany.
Nigerian authorities in recent years have stepped up efforts to return looted artifacts. Earlier this year, Germany pledged to repatriate more than 1,000 of them in the coming years.
Mr Baerbock said Nigeria is Germany’s second largest trading partner in Africa and by returning the items it hopes to start a new chapter for future bilateral relations.
“We see this as the first step. Many bronzes have been robbed and stolen, Baerbock said, so many will return.
“This step is also important to us because we are dealing with our dark colonial past,” she said.
Nigeria’s Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama said the country felt “deeply grateful” to Germany for returning the artifacts. In addition to their aesthetic value, they are of cultural and spiritual importance to the Nigerian people, he said. He urged Britain and other countries in possession of the antiquities to return them on ethical grounds.
Activists say there needs to be more responsibility beyond returning items, such as compensation for the damage African countries have suffered during years of looting.
“We only focus on physical objects. What about the digital properties of these works? Who owns those properties? And what will happen to these works?” Victor Ehikhamenor, a Nigerian artist and supporter of repair efforts.
“What compensation and other payments do they have to pay to keep these works for a long time and make money from it?” he say.