On the Heels of a Dramatic Restitution Report, France Is Returning 26 Artifacts to Benin. Will Other Countries Follow Suit?
Some French museums fear that Emanuel Macron's stance will open a "Pandora's Box" of restitution claims.
Twenty-six bronze artifacts taken from Benin during the colonial era will be returned from France to their country of origin. The news comes on the heels of a dramatic report presented at the Élysée palace on Friday, advising French President Emmanuel Macron to enact a permanent restitution agenda for all art taken “without consent” from Africa during the colonial era.
The report, titled “Towards a new relational ethics,” has been met with horror by some French museum and gallery directors, who fear this will open a “Pandora’s Box” of restitution claims that will empty French museums of their treasures.
Macron commissioned the report in March following the French president’s now famous declaration in Ouagadougou last year, in which he stated that he wanted to see the conditions set for a repatriation of African heritage within the next five years. He tasked art historian Bénédicte Savoy and economist Felwine Sarr, the authors of the report, with recommending a path toward this goal.
At the presentation on Friday, Macron called on French museums to identify African partners and begin organizing returns. He also called for the rapid establishment of an online inventory of museums’ African collections, including systematic provenance research, according to a statement from the presidential palace.
The Benin Bronzes
Based on a proposal from the Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac Museum and the French ministry of culture, Macron has ordered the return of 26 works requested by Benin authorities “without delay.” The artifacts in question, which include three statues of the kings of Abomey, thrones and ornamental doors, and a statue of the god Gou, were looted during General Dodd’s bloody siege on the Béhanzin palace in 1892. In Benin, they will be shared with the public in the context of an ambitious new museums project.
France’s former minister of foreign affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault, previously rejected an official request for restitution in 2016 on the grounds of the “inalienability” of its national collections.
But Macron’s recent statement at the Élysée implies that there could be a change to French law on the inalienability of objects in the national collection. “Operational and, where appropriate, legislative, measures will be taken to allow these works to return to Benin, accompanied by the know-how of the museum which has preserved them until now,” Macron said.
Benin will now be offered access to the 26 objects on a temporary basis while officials study how to implement the restitution into French law, a spokesperson for the Élysée told artnet News, adding that it’s up to the French ministry of culture to decide how to proceed.
France is beginning with objects from Benin because, to date, it is the only country from which France has received a formal request. But the objects are among some 90,000 works from sub-Saharan Africa in French public collections, according to the report, including nearly 70,000 in the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum alone.
In fact, the 26 artifacts returning to Benin have been in the works for nearly a year. “It is a little bit unfortunate that it appears as the sudden decision of Emmanuel Macron,” Felicity Bodenstein, a historian of ethnographic collections at Berlin’s Technical University, told artnet News. “It is not. Curators at the Quai Branly have been engaged in this dialogue for quite some time now.”
The French president called on his ministries of culture and foreign affairs to take steps to ensure “African youth has access in Africa and not just in Europe to their own heritage and the common heritage of humanity.”
Looking Beyond France
Other European nations holding African collections acquired under comparable circumstances should also engage in the conversation, Macron urged on Friday. He invited African and European partners to meet in Paris in the first three months of 2019 to “build together this new relationship and policy of exchange.” The consultation will bring together African states and former European colonial powers such as Germany, Belgium, and the United Kingdom.
The UK’s British Museum in particular holds a number of colonial-era artifacts. Contacted by artnet News, a spokesperson for the museum said that it is barred from deaccessioning objects in its collection under the British Museum Act, but that the trustees welcome Macron’s advocacy for the circulation of objects.
“These are complicated histories and a transparent focus on the provenance of objects is indispensable,” the museum’s trustees wrote in a statement. They pointed out that the British Museum has already committed to lending objects to Benin City’s planned new Royal Museum on a rotating basis, and that it is part of their mission to make the collection as widely accessible as possible to a global public.
“We need to use the extraordinary collections in museums to re-write the narrative of a one-sided history to a shared equitable and collaborative one. The British Museum is ready to play its part in that.”
The topic is of particular interest to Germany, too. Most of the objects headed for a show planned at the new cultural center in Berlin, the Humboldt Forum, date from the colonial era. “German museums will certainly follow suit,” said Felicity Bodenstein. But the debate there is different than in France because Germany cannot pass one law to apply to all of its museums, which are under the jurisdiction of various regional governments. “Decisions get made very differently in these countries so the timing and form of restitutions will not be the same,” Bodenstein said.
“The looted art must be returned, this also applies to cultural assets from colonial contexts,” a spokesperson for the German minister of culture Monika Grütters told Monopol. “This presupposes provenance research, which Germany has clearly intensified in recent years and is continuing to expand.”
Savoy and Sarr’s 190-page report is currently available to read online and will be released in book form tomorrow from publishing house Philippe Rey-Seuil.
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