“Following the release of a groundbreaking report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron that recommends the permanent restitution of thousands of colonial-era artworks looted from Africa, France has agreed to return twenty-six sculptures to Benin “without delay,” The Local reports. While many see the move as a step toward restoring Africa’s cultural heritage—according to the study, 90 percent of African art is housed in institutions outside the continent—others fear that it will lead to the emptying of French museums.
The authors of the 108-page report, French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and Senegalese academic writer Felwine Sarr, presented their findings to Macron at the presidential Elysée Palace in Paris on Friday, November 23. It declared that “transitional solutions,” such as temporary loans, are only acceptable “until legal mechanisms are found to allow the final and unconditional return of heritage objects to the African continent.”
Hours after the meeting, Macron declared that the twenty-six cultural heritage objects—mostly statues from the Royal Palaces of Abomey, located in the former capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey, which was seized by France in 1892—will be restituted. The items are currently housed in the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, which has about seventy thousand artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa in its collection.
While the gesture follows Macron’s promises to make the return of African art a “top priority” during a trip to Burkina Faso’s capital, Ouagadougou, last year, new legislation will have to be approved by parliament before it can happen. France has strict laws about cultural objects, which are considered the property of the state, no matter their provenance.
“We’re proposing a framework that takes into account the time constraints of the requesting nations, so that we’re not imposing a vast quantity of restituted objects on them, and are making sure that they actually want restitution, are prepared for it and are in a position to organize it,” Sarr told the New York Times.
Sarr and Savoy advised Macron that the country should begin by restituting “symbolic pieces whose return has been requested for a long time by various African nations or communities.” As part of the first phase, they suggest returning objects from Senegal, Nigeria, Ethiopia, Mali, and Cameroon. Following their return, the academics recommend creating inventories of French collections and establishing commissions comprising experts that can evaluate restitution requests.
While it is unclear if Macron will implement all of Sarr and Savoy’s proposals, he has already called for an international conference on the restitution of African art that is expected to be held in Paris in April. The Art Newspaper reports that Macron appointed culture minister Franck Riester to organize the event. As Macron attempts to pave the way for large-scale restitutions, many question whether other countries will follow suit.”