France returns looted art: “There will be a before and an after”

Status: 27.10.2021 4:20 p.m.

History is being written in Paris today: for the first time since the end of the colonial era, France is returning significant looted art to Benin. Specifically, it’s about 26 objects – but it’s only a first step.

By Linda Schildbach, ARD-Studio Paris

It’s a small step for France, but a big one for the return of looted colonial cultural assets. A “world event”, says the art historian Bénédicte Savoy: “Because for the first time a colonial power gives something back, something important.” One will see what the next steps are. “What is clear is that this event is comparable to the fall of the Berlin Wall. There will be a before and an after.”

France is officially returning a total of 26 art objects to the West African Republic of Benin. These are artifacts from the treasures of the Abomey Kingdom. Among them are meter-high protective statues from the 19th century – half human, half animal -, two artistically carved thrones as well as wooden gates and small altars. They were brought to France by French soldiers in 1892, in the middle of the bloody colonial war.

“Of immense importance”

“These works were gone from Benin for over a century,” says curator Calixte Biah of the History Museum in Ouidah. “They are of immense importance to several generations of the people of Benin and Africa. They are proof of the skill in the Abomey monarchy and document the history of this kingdom.”

In the Musem in Ouidah, the 26 art objects will first be on view before they will move into a newly built museum. It is a historic event for the West African country – Benin has been fighting for the return of the works for years.

Artfully designed doors are also among the objects that are being returned.


Probably 90,000 objects in France

It is estimated that there are around 90,000 art objects from Africa in French museums, so a return of 26 artifacts may not sound like much. “But they’re not just any kind of objects,” explains Savoy. “These are very large, very spectacular, very important, royal objects from a kingdom flattened by the French. And they have been in the middle of the museums since they were in France.”

Namely a centerpiece of the great African collection of the Paris Museum Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. When asked what the return of the 26 works of art means for the Paris museum, the collection’s director, Gaëlle Beaujean, is cautious: “We have already rearranged the permanent exhibition where they were shown. I can’t say more.”

Law passed last year

Around 70,000 art objects from sub-Saharan Africa are in the collection of the Quai Branly Museum. About 45,000 of them come from the French colonial era, Savoy estimates. Together with the Senegalese author Felwine Sarr, she wrote a groundbreaking report in 2018 on the return of looted colonial art for the French government. As a result, a law was passed in 2020 that grants the affected countries a right to restitution – but this does not mean that all would be claimed by the states, says the art historian:

That’s a few dozen objects, maybe hundreds at most. Therefore, the fear that the museums might one day stand empty is completely made up. The reality is that some African countries want to get back a few, for them symbolically important, historically important objects.

Debate in Germany too

French President Emmanuel Macron announced in 2017 that he would restitute looted art in French possession within five years upon request. This also triggered a debate in Germany and brought movement to the otherwise rigid restitution policy. In the course of the next year, the federal government plans to start making returns – above all to Nigeria. For art historian Savoy, one thing is certain: “The 21st century will be the century of restitution. And it began today in the year 21, which is very good news.”

After the handover ceremony, the 26 art objects will be exhibited in Paris until Sunday. After the handover agreement was signed on November 9th, they will return to Benin – after almost 130 years.

“A historic event” – France returns looted art

Linda Schildbach, ARD Paris, 27.10.2021 · 15:30

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