France says it will return 26 artworks looted from Benin during the colonial era by 2021 at the latest. The French president Emmanuel Macron had pledged to repatriate the items “without delay” a year ago, hot on heels of a radical report urging the return of looted African heritage in French museums. The announcement comes as some African experts feared that he was not going to keep his word.
The artifacts, which include a royal throne, and sculptures of the kings of Abomey, as well as a statue of the god Gou, will be returned “in the course of 2020, perhaps at the beginning of 2021,” the French culture minister Franck Riester told Benin’s president Patrice Talon yesterday, December 16. The firm deadline was announced by the French politician during his visit to the West African country.
The 26 Benin artifacts were looted after a bloody siege of the Béhanzin palaces by the French in 1892. The objects are now in the collection of the the Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. The ethnography museum in Paris holds around 70,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa. Artnet News reached out to the French culture ministry and the museum but did not immediately hear back.
Once returned to Benin, the works are due to be housed in a new museum built with French support. Some experts in Benin have warned against sending the objects back before the country can build a proper facility to preserve them, according to AFP.
Benin’s culture minister Jean-Michel Abimbola welcomed France’s renewed commitment to return the artifacts. Speaking during a joint press conference, he praised “the opening of a broader discussion” about restitution. The two countries also clarified that they had agreed that the works would be returned in stages.
Prior to the announcement, the French government and museum directors appeared to be dragging their feet. A promised inventory of African objects in its national collections has not been published, and a symposium of politicians and museum professionals due to be held in early 2019 has not taken place. This has caused some museum professionals in Africa, such Patrick Mudekereza, the director of Waza Centre d’art de Lubumbashi in the Democratic Republic of Congo, to doubt the French commitment to restitution. Mudekereza told Artnet News last week that he feels Macron is “not keeping his word.”
Macron’s dramatic intervention into the issue of looted African heritage began in 2017, and the expert report he commissioned galvanized the conversation among politicians and museum professionals beyond France. It has also put particular pressure on museums in other former colonial powers, including the UK, Germany, and Belgium, to follow suit.
The British Museum, which is a member of the Benin Dialogue Group, along with other UK institutions, prefers possible long-term loans to Africa rather than no-strings repatriation of looted artifacts. Most of its Benin treasures were looted by the British army from Benin City, which is now in Nigeria. Last month, Jesus College, which is part of the University of Cambridge, announced it would be repatriating a Benin bronze of a cockerel.
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