Return the stolen art
French President Macron has reopened the debate
Magazine, Page IX
WNew York Times hen President Emmanuel Macron of France received a report he had commissioned on the restitution of African treasures, he wasted no time in announcing that the Quai Branly Museum in Paris would return 26 objects, looted by French colonial forces in 1892, to Benin.
But that was as far as the president went in publicly endorsing the report last Friday. Its authors, Bénédicte Savoy of France and Felwine Sarr of Senegal, recommend that all objects removed without consent from Africa and sent to France be permanently returned if the countries of origin ask for them.
Macron instead assigned his culture and foreign ministers to help fulfil an objective he set a year ago: to ensure that the cultural treasures of sub-saharan Africa be accessible in Africa through restitutions, but also exhibitions, exchanges and loans. He also called for an international conference in early 2019 on the return of African artifacts.
In Europe, the restitution announcement drew tepid reactions from museum directors, as it sets a tricky precedent. Leaders of cultural institutions were quick to emphasise that Macron was speaking for France and France alone, but acknowledged that his actions and pronouncements on African heritage had energised and accelerated discussions on the subject.
The restitution of 26 objects to Benin “does not change the policy of the British Museum, nor legislation in Great Britain,” said Hartwig Fischer, the director of the London institution, which has 73,000 objects from sub-saharan Africa in its collections, many obtained in colonial times. Fischer said that while the British Museum’s trustees were open to all forms of co-operation, “the collections have to be preserved as whole.”
Hartmut Dorgerloh, the director of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, a giant museum of non-western art set to open next year, said in an interview that Macron’s pledge to return the 26 objects had made issues of Africa’s heritage “more obvious, more visible and also more urgent.” In the future, he said, European museums would “have to return” objects in some cases, while in others, the inclusion of artefacts in collections would have to be viewed as “the result of European or global history.”
The objects that Macron is giving back to Benin are a star attraction of the Quai Branly Museum. Seized when French colonial forces ransacked the capital of the 300-year-old Kingdom of Dahomey, they were royal treasures that the fleeing king left behind — statues, thrones, and even the carved polychrome doors of his palace.
Prince Kum’a Ndumbe III of the Duala people in Cameroon, who runs Africavenir International, a nonprofit that calls for the restitution of artefacts taken without consent, said that the French report was “the first step in the right direction.” He added that such a political commitment had been awaited since Cameroon and much of the rest of Francophone Africa gained Independence from France in 1960.
“This is not just about the return of African art,” he said. “When someone’s stolen your soul, it’s very difficult to survive as a people.”
He invited Britain and Germany to follow the French example and commission their own restitution reports.
Sindika Dokolo, a businessman from the Democratic Republic of Congo who runs an art foundation in Angola and who has bought back looted African art, said the French president’s restitution offer had “no precedent.”
“Macron has opened a Pandora’s box,” he said.
At the same time, Dokolo urged African leaders to respond quickly, before a change of government or mood in France — to “put their foot in the door before it closes.”