Senegal and the Ivory Coast Ask France to Return Looted Art in the Wake of a Groundbreaking Restitution Report

Days after the publication of a major report, calls for the return of African cultural heritage gain momentum.

Senegalese culture minister Abdou Latif Coulibaly. Photo: SEYLLOU/AFP/Getty Images.

Days after the publication of a groundbreaking report by the French government calling for the restitution of colonial artifacts to African countries, authorities from Senegal and the Ivory Coast have requested the return of thousands of objects in French museum collections. The museums’ and government’s response to these requests will serve as a powerful indicator of just how game-changing the report is and how committed France is to restitution.

The report, published on Friday, November 23, concludes that artifacts taken from the African continent before 1960 during “the violence of colonial rule” should be repatriated to their countries of origin if requested.

Speaking at a press conference ahead of the opening of the Musée des civilisations noires in Dakar on Tuesday, Senegalese culture minister Abdou Latif Coulibaly announced plans to file a formal repatriation request. “We are ready to find solutions with France,” he said, according to The Art Newspaper. “But if 10,000 pieces are identified the collections, we are asking for all 10,000.”

Meanwhile, on Wednesday, Ivorian authorities announced that they have requested the repatriation of 100 objects from France. Government spokesman Sidi Touré said the culture ministry worked with Abidjan’s Musée des civilisations to identify the artifacts.

“Ivory Coast has drawn up a list of about a hundred masterpieces,” Touré told France 24, adding that the ministry will send the list to the French government’s repatriation panel. But the Musée des civilisation’s director Silvie Memel Kassi said there are still up to 4,000 Ivorian objects in Paris’s Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum and New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art that could be subject to further claims. She told the Art Newspaper the Ivory Coast is preparing for “negotiation and cultural cooperation with France and other countries.”

The French report’s authors, Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, have insisted they didn’t write the report to “empty the [French] museums’ galleries to fill those in Africa.” But they have recommended that Senegal, among a number of other countries, receive an immediate symbolic repatriation of its national heritage. Paris’s Quai Branly, which holds the majority of France’s African ethnographic artifacts, houses 2,281 Senegales objects.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the director of the Quai Branly was the first French museum leader to speak up publicly in opposition to the report. Stéphane Martin told the AFP that the recommendations sideline “museums in favor of specialists in historical reparations.” He also criticized the one-sided nature of the report, which he says emphasizes “historical reparations” without taking into account the “contributions museums make” in safeguarding, conserving, and researching artworks.

The document has added fuel to mounting diplomatic tensions as French authorities find themselves caught between African nations and domestic museums. French president Emmanuel Macron announced the restitution of 26 Beninese artworks looted during wartime in 1892 soon after the release of the report and has announced plans to hold European-African conference on African artifacts by next spring. But he has refrained from publicly embracing the report’s most radical recommendations, insisting that exhibitions, exchanges, and loans be considered alongside restitution.

Follow Artnet News on Facebook:

Want to stay ahead of the art world? Subscribe to our newsletter to get the breaking news, eye-opening interviews, and incisive critical takes that drive the conversation forward.