Germany has returned two wooden masks of the indigenous Kogi community to Colombia but conceded that wearing the sacred artefacts in ceremonies may come with a health risk because they were treated with toxic pesticides during their time in German museums.

The masks, which date back to the mid-15th century and have been held in ethnological collections in Berlin for over a century, were handed over to Colombia’s president, Gustavo Petro, by his German counterpart Frank-Walter Steinmeier at a ceremony in Berlin on Friday.

Describing the move as “part of a rethink of the way in which we treat our colonial past”, Steinmeier hailed Germany’s “pioneering role” in the move to return objects that have been acquired by European museums in colonial contexts.

Unlike many other objects that are subject to restitution claims, the Kogi masks were legally bought by the German ethnologist Konrad Theodor Preuss from the son of a deceased Kogi priest in 1915, more than a century after Colombia won independence from Spain.

The Colombian foreign minister, Alvaro Leyva Duran, and president, Gustavo Petro, with the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier
From left: the Colombian foreign minister, Álvaro Leyva Durán, and president, Gustavo Petro, with the German president, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, at the handover ceremony. Photograph: Filip Singer/EPA

Given the masks’ sacred status, however, the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation that oversees Berlin’s museums has concluded that the Kogi artefacts should never have been sold in the first place.

“The Kalguakala [masks] are of total importance to us as they are sacred,” said Arregocés Conchacala Zalabata, a representative of the Kogi. “They are not a historical artefact, they are alive. With the masks we perform ceremonies to connect and work with the spirit of the sun, the waters, the mountains and the world’s many species.”

However, researchers warn that many objects in western museums should only be restituted with a serious health warning since they are contaminated with hazardous substances. In the late 19th and early 20th-century objects made of organic substances like wood or leather were habitually sprayed with pesticides to protect them against infestations from wood beetles, clothes moths or silverfish.

Records seen by the Guardian show the container holding the two Kogi masks were in the 1940s and 50s repeatedly sprayed with 1,4-dichlorobenzene, a disinfectant whose use in mothballs has been banned across the European Union since 2008 because it can cause breathing difficulties and is suspected of causing cancer.

The question over the masks’ toxicity was not raised during the official part of the handover event on Friday, though their historical contamination was confirmed by the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage foundation.

“The masks were indeed contaminated with chemicals,” Rudolf Parzinger said. Because the wooden objects were cleaned and “detoxified” earlier in the year, he said, “one can handle them without PPE masks or gloves”. However, Parzinger added: “We still have some doubt over where they can be directly worn in front of the face. That remains to be seen.”

The director of the Rathgen research laboratory, an institute attached to Berlin’s state-owned museums, told the Guardian earlier this year that contaminated objects could not be fully decontaminated.

“I don’t know of a single scientific procedure that would turn a contaminated object into a harmless object,” said Stefan Simon. “There’s still a great naivety among museums and politicians about what science and technology are capable of in that respect.”

As European governments including Germany, France, Belgium and the Netherlands have in recent years taken steps to return objects that were acquired by their national museums during the colonial era, focus has increasingly shifted to the question of where they will end up after their return.

Bronze objects from the former kingdom of Benin that Germany returned to Nigeria last December have since been transferred by presidential decree to the head of the former royal family of the Benin Empire – raising concerns that they could vanish in a private collection rather than end up being put on display in a new museum for West African art that Germany is co-funding.

Speaking later on Friday, President Petro said: “We want to hold a restitution ceremony. The Kogi community will decide what will happen to the masks. I would like a museum in Santa Marta. But that’s an idea. We will have to see what ideas they propose.”

The German side were adamant that the masks would be returned to the Kogi community, who would determine their fate. “Whether they go into a museum, into a temple, or whether they are used in rituals, that is up to the Kogi,” said Parzinger.

No representatives of the Kogi were present at the ceremony in Berlin. Kogi representative Zalabata told the Guardian over the phone that his community had not been informed of an issue with contamination through pesticides, and that the plan was to re-integrate them in ritual use. “We’re going to continue using them,” he said.


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