France urged to return looted African art treasures

France urged to return looted African art treasures
Benin is demanding restitution of its national treasures that had been taken from the former French colony Dahomey (current Benin) to France and currently are on display at Quai Branly. AFP
Experts appointed by President Emmanuel Macron will advise him on Friday to allow the return of thousands of African artworks held in French museums, a radical shift in policy which could put pressure on other former colonial powers.

Calls have been growing in Africa for the restitution of their cultural treasures, but French law strictly forbids the government from ceding state property, even in well-documented cases of pillaging.

But in a speech in Burkina Faso in November last year, Macron said “Africa's heritage cannot just be in European private collections and museums.”

He later asked French art historian Benedicte Savoy and Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr to study the matter, and they are to present Macron with their report on Friday.

According to a copy seen by AFP, they recommend amending French law to allow the restitution of cultural works if bilateral accords are struck between France and African states.

The change would apply in particular to works held in museums which were “transferred from their original territory during the French colonial period,” the report said.

“We propose changing heritage laws so that all types of cases can be taken into account, and the criteria of consentment can be invoked,” Sarr told French daily Liberation in an article posted late Tuesday.

 (an aerial view of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. AFP)

Art dealers worried

Of the estimated 90,000 African artworks in French museum collections, around 70,000 are at Paris' Quai Branly museum, created by ex-president Jacques Chirac, a keen admirer of African and Asian arts.

In order to proceed with any restitutions, “a request would have to be lodged by an African country, based on inventory lists which we will have sent them,” according to the report.

The prospect has raised hackles among some curators and art dealers who say it would eventually empty museums and galleries in some Western countries.

Critics also say the move could prompt private French collectors to move their works out of the country for fear of seizure.

European conservationists have also raised practical concerns, worrying artefacts could be stolen or handled improperly if given to inexperienced museums in politically unstable countries.

Britain too has faced numerous calls to return artefacts to the countries they originate from, including the Elgin Marbles to Greece and the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria.

On Tuesday, the governor of Easter Island in the Pacific tearfully begged the British Museum to return one of its famous statues.

The London museum has held the Hoa Hakananai'a, one of the most spiritually important of the Chilean island's stone monoliths, for 150 years.

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  1. I do understand the reasoning behind this, but just look at what has happened in the Middle East in general. Iraq and Syria have had a tremendous amount of art and architecture destroyed, cultural genocide. Sometimes to protect you must protect it from any misfortune. And that means not returning it. Let me pose an even greater question, should all art be returned to the country of origin? This includes both public and privately owned art. It is established and protercted where it reside now. Let me get even more specific, should art by Da Vinci be rerturned to the Medici Court in Florence in what we now call Italy? Italy did not exist in the middle ages and is in fact a current construct. What about all the French or British art that is now spread all over the world? It needs to stay where it is at currently. We NOW have laws that govern the sale and removal of art from one country to the next. They are fairly new. We have established a date from which we can go forward and say art now discovered in its country of origin must stay there. And said country can and should bid at auction to purchase art that is no longer within their borders. In some cases this art is 5000 years old.

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