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France Vowed to Return Looted Treasures. But Few Are Heading Back.


A year ago this week, in a pioneering announcement, President Emmanuel Macron of France said that his country would give back 26 looted treasures to the African state of Benin. It was a bold statement by the leader of a former colonial power. He also took delivery of an independent report he had commissioned, which sent shock waves through museums around the world.

In the report, two academics, Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, recommended that objects removed in colonial times without the consent of their country of origin be permanently returned, if the country asks for them.

But 12 months later, and two years since Mr. Macron pledged in a speech in Burkina Faso to enable “the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa,” little additional progress has been made.

France says it will examine all requests by African states for specific objects, and otherwise pursue alternative forms of cultural exchange, such as long-term loans. The Benin treasures remain in Paris awaiting parliamentary legislation to allow their restitution, and only one other restitution has been announced: the return to Senegal of a saber once owned by Omar Saidou Tall, a 19th-century spiritual leader and military commander.

Still, the change in French thinking, though only timidly reflected in policy, has prompted a shift in global attitudes toward restitution. Debates, publications, and public or private initiatives have surfaced in support of Africa’s campaign to access its cultural heritage, most of which sits in the museums of its former European colonizers. This month, the Open Society Foundations, set up by the billionaire George Soros, announced a four-year, $15 million initiative to help Africa get back looted cultural objects.

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Credit...Alain Jocard/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

In an interview, Mr. Sarr, the co-author of the French report, said, “The question of restitution is being increasingly debated in Europe, Africa, and the United States by intellectuals, artists, civil society, researchers. It’s become a central question, and real progress has been made.”

But in France, “things are not moving as fast as we would have liked,” Mr. Sarr added. “The French government is striving for a middle way that would be a mix of restitution and circulation. From a historical standpoint, that’s a retreat.”

The French culture minister, Franck Riester, speaking in a telephone interview from Dakar, Senegal, the day after the 19th-century sword was handed over, defended the progress. “Nothing has changed in the French thinking,” he said.

He noted that the Savoy-Sarr report, though interesting and far-reaching, “does not commit the president or the government in any way.” His ministry was, Mr. Riester said, busy putting Mr. Macron’s speech in Burkina Faso into practice.

“Let’s not reduce this question to saying, simply, that we will transfer ownership of objects, because it’s much more complex,” Mr. Riester said. “When countries ask us for restitutions, we look into it with them.” He noted that some African states actually preferred long-term loans and assistance in curatorial training, funding, conservation, and museum building.

Mr. Riester said that the “heritage of humanity” should be accessible to everyone, everywhere, and that in the case of art, ownership was not what mattered.

Ms. Savoy, the other author of the report, said in an interview that the picture was lopsided. “Almost everything is outside of Africa, and almost nothing is in Africa,” she noted. “We’re looking at a scandalous imbalance.”

In Britain and Germany, two other former colonial powers, the Macron speech and Savoy-Sarr report have stimulated debate in government and museum circles.

Germany is returning a few objects, has promised to give back others, and has generally embraced the notion of restitution.

This year, the federal government and the culture ministers of Germany’s 16 states agreed on uniform guidelines for the repatriation of objects removed from the country’s former colonies “in ways that are legally or morally unjustifiable today,” and earmarked 1.9 million euros, about $2.1 million, for research into the provenance of such artifacts.

As part of that process, human remains from a massacre of indigenous people in Namibia a century ago have been given back to the African country, as have a 15th-century stone cross and a family Bible and whip once owned by an important tribal chief.

“For a long time, remembrance of the German colonial era was overshadowed by the critical examination of National Socialist injustice,” Monika Grütters, the German culture minister, said in an email interview. “But we must also face up to our historical responsibility in this area.”

She said restitutions would not leave Europe’s museums emptied of their African holdings, because countries and communities mainly asked for “objects of special significance for their history and cultural identity.”

The British Museum, which has 73,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in its collections, has taken a different approach. There, restitution is not an option: By law, the museum cannot break up its collection. It is engaged instead in a program of partnerships with African countries to make loans and to advise on the building of museums, collections and curatorial teams.

In an interview, the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, said that “the value of the collection resides in its breadth, its complexity, its unity.” He described the institution as “a universal museum whose beneficiaries, and, in the end, whose owners, are the citizens of this world.”

Mr. Fischer said the British Museum was lending 12 important objects to the J.K. Randle Center, a cultural center opening next year in Lagos, Nigeria, focusing on the history and culture of the Yoruba people of Western Africa. The objects will be on loan for three years, with the possibility of an extension, he said.

The museum will also lend “a substantial number of objects,” Mr. Fischer added, to the Benin Royal Museum set to open in Benin City, Nigeria, in 2023. Parallel conversations are taking place with officials in Accra, Ghana, to help develop a national museum, he said. In all instances, the British Museum would retain ownership of the pieces, which would go to Africa on loan.

Geoffrey Robertson, a British-Australian human rights lawyer and author of a new book on restitution called “Who Owns History?” said that was nowhere near enough. Mr. Robertson urges the British Museum to give back to Nigeria the Benin Bronzes — sculptures and relief plaques looted during an 1897 British expedition. He also calls for other restitutions, including returning the Parthenon Marbles.

“Hardly a week passes without some apology for some colonial barbarity,” Mr. Robertson said in an interview. “Apologies are cheap,” he added. “The only real apology is to give back the loot.”

He said that European museums were not open about the violent colonial circumstances in which some objects had been seized, with wall labels that he described as full of “half-truths” and “euphemisms.”

Redressing “the legacy of colonial violence” was a driving force behind the $15 million pledge from the Open Society, according to the organization’s president, Patrick Gaspard, a former United States ambassador to South Africa, who was born in what is now the Democratic Republic of Congo. He said in an interview that the return of cultural heritage would help empower Africa’s youth and help the continent’s democratic process. The $15 million will support grass-roots organizations involved in restitution, and fund litigation, research, and debate, he added.

In an ideal world, Ms. Savoy said, African countries would be able to “secure the objects important to them and circulate them as they wished.” Any “holes” left in European collections would be filled by the tens of thousands of African objects currently in museum reserves, she added.

And ideally, she said, “European museums would make more of an effort to tell the story of how those objects got there in the first place.”


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