"Savoy-Sarr Report on African Art Restitution: A Summary"

“French President Emmanuel Macron spoke at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso on November 28, 2017: “Starting today, and within the next five years, I want to see the conditions put in place so as to allow for the temporary or definitive restitution of African cultural heritage to Africa.” Within a few months, President Macron had commissioned economist Felwine Sarr and art historian Benedicte Savoy to prepare a report on how this goal should be accomplished.


The report, The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage. Toward a New Relational Ethics, was delivered to President Macron one year after the Ouagadougou speech, in late November 2018.

The entire report is essential reading for museum administrators, anthropologists, collectors, and the art trade worldwide. Available as a download: it is 89 pages long in its English version, plus an additional 163 pages in appendices, maps, charts, and lists of objects of African heritage in French museums.

The following is a brief summary prepared by Cultural Property News staff. The page numbers from the report appear in parentheses; these are all keyed to the English version available online.

From the first introductory quote, France’s academics are condemned by one of their own for stealing Africa’s culture:

“…We pilfer from the Africans under the pretext of teaching others how to love them and get to know their culture, that is, when all is said and done, to train even more ethnographers, so they can head off to encounter them and ‘love and pilfer’ from them as well.” Michel Leiris, Letter to his wife, September 19, 1931.

Savoy and Sarr’s approach demands a radical rethinking about and reappraisal of past acquisitions of African art and its present day display. It is not too strong to state that the authors feel the primary lesson to be learned by Europeans from African culture should be one of shame for past wrongs committed.

The authors define colonization as a “crime against humanity.” (1) The products of colonization are the fruits of crime, and every taking from Africa during the period of colonization is illegitimate. European museums are unwittingly the public archives of the colonial system. (2) At the same time, the report acknowledges that the greater legacy of colonialism is economic inequality, political instability, and humanitarian tragedies. (2)

Restitution of art is a step in “building bridges for future equitable relations.” (2) The authors deny that restitution of artworks would result in “territorial separation or isolationism of cultural property.” Instead they see restitution as a step toward a broader and more inclusive “universalism” that includes Africa. The development of African youth in particular is endangered through loss of their rights to their artistic and cultural heritage. (4)

Savoy and Sarr state early on that their proposal for restitution is appropriate only for artifacts of sub-Saharan Africa, and that while objects from Algeria or Egypt, for example, are held as a result of multilateral exploitation by multiple European nations, these nations have not been stripped of their cultural legacy as sub-Saharan Africa has, and that they experienced “different contexts of appropriation.” The authors do not elaborate on whether there is a difference between collecting African material and, for example, France’s extensive acquisitions of Cambodian art from French Indochina.

The introductory section of the report provides a series of repeated arguments on why restitution is morally necessary to remedy the inhumanity and callous nature of the taking.

““To restitute” strives to dispel the ambiguities linked to the use of the term restitution by placing it in relation with other general questions concerning memory work and reparations.”

Acquisition of artworks is narrowly defined as “the annexation of cultural heritage” for display by peoples of conquering nations, and as “the natural correlate of wars.” All transfers of art, the authors say – the building of the art market, inheritance, donations to museums – are based directly on immoral seizures and continuing exploitation.

The authors view the taking of artifacts as a humiliating cultural appropriation, as early as the Roman period, citing Polybius’ warning that the spectacle of Greek art displayed in Rome as spoils of plunder arouses as much anger as hatred by the victims. (7)

According to Savoy and Sarr, “No juridical, administrative, cultural, or economic apparatus would be capable of legitimizing” the transgressive act of acquisition of cultural heritage. (8) the authors’ use Cicero to argue that purchased objects are also illegitimately acquired because of the imbalance of power between seller and buyer: “If he had the faculty of choice at his disposal”, Cicero writes in regard to the Sicilian victim of Roman predations, “he would have never chosen

to sell what resided in his sanctuary and which had been left to him by his ancestors.” (8)

Savoy and Sarr give examples of historical collaboration between academics, museums, and military expeditions in gathering objects of cultural heritage. They quote from Henry Ling Roth’s Great Benin. Its Customs, Art and Horrors, Halifax 1903, and describe the workings of the Ethnographic and Linguistic Mission of Dakar-Djibouti to show the political role of ethnology. These early writings, they say, show that ethnology’s purpose is to better understand primitive peoples in order to devise better means of exploiting them. The goal of ethnology was to document cultures before the ostensibly inferior native peoples’ culture was destroyed, as it inevitably would be, through contact with the culture of the white man. (12-14)

The authors state that the exploitation of the natural wealth and the cultural wealth is inseparable. “Destruction and collection are the two sides of the same coin. The great museums of Europe are at once the conservationists of incredible human creativity and the receptacles of what often amounts to a violent dynamic of appropriation that is still largely poorly understood.” (15)

Savoy and Sarr note that certain African countries have requested the return of important objects of heritage for over 50 years, specific requests having been made repeatedly by Nigeria and Ethiopia since independence. (17-21)

They also have a powerful argument that Western museums have a highly disproportionate number of sub-Saharan African objects compared to collections left in Africa, listing the numbers of objects in major European museums: (15)

British Museum (69,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa)

Weltmuseum of Vienna (37,000),

Musee Royal de l’Afrique Centrale in Belgium (180,000),

Humboldt Forum (75,000),

Vatican Museums (unstated)

Musee du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac (70,000)

They then cite an estimate by African Museum specialist Alain Godonou in 2007 (15):

“…with certain rare exceptions, the inventories of the national museums in Africa itself hardly ever exceeded 3,000 cultural heritage objects and most of them had little importance or significance.”

The authors discuss the increasing willingness among German, Belgian, and British museums to acknowledge that military pillage is the source of some objects in their collections, but how only the restitution of human remains has become accepted practice, whereas objects are considered in terms of possible loans. (16-17) In addition, the authors note, “a large number of cultural objects and works of art would be loaned out from African museums to French museums between the 1930s and the 1960s and would never be returned to their institutions of origin after the independence of nations takes place.” (19)

Under the heading, A Rather Long Wait, Savoy and Sarr discuss how a process for making requests for restitution was developed in France in response to attention given the issue at the United Nations. In 1982, the inspector general of the Direction of French Museums, Pierre Quoniam, was tasked with developing a framework for restitution of art objects to countries of origin. Quoniam’s report concluded that restitution was an act of “solidarity and equity.” In the end, however, returns were not made, the justification for retaining works being that the artifacts had been integrated into the cultural property of the French nation and were inalienable. Cultural property requests have been consistently refused on this basis even up to 2016. (21)

In the subheading, The Mobilization of Public Opinion, the authors are heartened by contemporary academic and political movements in Africa and Europe to reinvent and redefine museums and by the depiction of the restitutor as hero in movies and television. They cite numerous instances of the development of post-colonial thought among younger activists and academics and their far greater openness to concepts of restitution. They also note participation by gallerists and collectors in acts of restitution. (23-26)

In Section 1, To Restitute, the authors discuss first the unworkability of the concept of “temporary restitution” utilized by President Macron in his speech in Ouagoudougou, substituting the concept of “definitive restitution,” restitution without any stipulations or conditions as the only way of making the communities from which objects were taken whole again.

“…restitution is very clearly the recognition of the illegitimacy of the

property that one had previously claimed ownership of, no matter what the

duration of time was. As a consequence, the act of restitution attempts to put things

back in order, into proper harmony. To openly speak of restitutions is to speak of

justice, or a re-balancing, recognition, of restoration and reparation, but above all:

it’s a way to open a pathway toward establishing new cultural relations based on a

newly reflected upon ethical relation.” (29)

Identifying where and how objects should be returned, the authors first discuss the violence of the taking of objects within the colonial framework and how African objects were transformed in the museum context and defined as art. The authors then propose a process of re-entry into African culture within a variety of “welcoming apparatuses.” Restituted African art need not go to museums. The destination and usage of the art would be up to the African nations to which it was returned. Nonetheless, the authors have suggestions:

“[T]he objects could find their place within art centers, university museums, schools, or even at the center of the communities for ritual uses, with the possibility of an oscillating use and return of the objects to local centers charged with their preservation.” (32)

In the sections Of the Life and Spirit of Objects and Putting History to Work, Reconstructing Memory, and Of the Circulation of Objects and the Plasticity of Categories, Savoy and Sarr discuss the nature of objects of cultural heritage as seen by various African traditional societies in an effort to “demystify Western notions of cultural heritage and preservation.” The “memory work” of reintroducing historical objects is a method of reinvigorating history and healing vestiges of colonial violence in the psyche as well as correcting the historical record. The authors express, through very Western academic terms, what they believe will be a consequence of returning art to Africa – not only a redefining of the museum purpose but using art as a means of reframing personal identity and linking that individual identity to a newly created history and national identity. In other words, linking art and nationalism. For all the transformative effect that restitution of art to Africa is supposed to have on both Africans and Westerners fundamental ways of thinking about objects, the authors do, however, hold to the old-fashioned notion of museums as a “site for the affirmation of national identity” and discuss in a nationalist framework, “the delicate question of the construction of a political community and a project for the future. To envision the possible of the future requires clearing away the painful legacies of the colonial past, of doing away with a sense of indebtedness. If this can be accompanied by a return of emblematic objects, the memory work can function as an operator for the reconstruction of the identity of subjects and communities.” (35-37)

The following puzzling passage appears to us to say that taking objects away from the Western museum concept will free Africans to redefine the objects meaning in relation to themselves and their communities. Once again, the authors emphasize the political/historical nature of art, rather than how individuals interact with it:

“Restitution, through the transfer of propriety that it allows for, breaks up this monopoly of control concerning the mobility of objects by Western museums. These cultural objects are then free to circulate in a new manner, but within a temporality, a rhythm and a meaning, placed on them by their legitimate owners. These newly freed objects could help to re-draw trans-national territorial borders thereby reoccupying spaces of the circulation of communities, but also so as to help expand the circulation of these objects on a more continental and global scale. Furthermore, reappropriating for oneself, as a culture, allows for a toppling of colonial categories, thereby helping to re-fluidify fixed geographies and to invert the colonial hegemonic relationship in place that was instituted by a fixed location of the cultural objects along with monopoly of the discourse concerning them. Restitution also allows for the recreation of the historiography of the collections through reconsidering the history of the objects as well as having access to epistemogonies that have established them within a primary universe of sense. But also, it allows for the cohabitation of several regimes of forms of knowledge concerning the objects of these communities.” (38)

It is possible something was lost in translation. In the second chapter of the report, Restitutions and Collections, the authors discuss how the project to return art to Africa will be defined by a lengthy, progressive process. It will require identifying the historical and scientific contexts of acquisition and conservation, input from professionals in both the museums and cultural heritage field, and decisions on how to prioritize objects for return. Such decisions should be contingent both on how and when objects were acquired, and through “a rigorous analysis of the historical, typological, and symbolic criteria.” (43-44)

The authors say they cannot define how this process should work yet and may only be able to do so as the process of prioritizing objects for return takes place, since culture is always changing in surprising ways. They do not “want to obsessively formalize the criteria for restitutability, given the varied modes of appropriation of African cultural property and heritage by France and taking into account the spectrum of emotional responses (anger, claims, aspirations) in their countries of origin that are just as varied as a result of their absence.” (44)

Savoy and Saar identify three “dynamics” or ways in which objects came to French collections:

1. A “hyper-centralization” in Paris of the collections of cultural heritage judged to be the most important.”

2. A “flow dynamic,” resulting in collections of African objects in French coastal cities involved with mercantile trade with Africa

3. Objects obtained through inheritance, gifts, records, and donations.

They note that there is no single source documenting the objects in all French collections, and many smaller collections are not well documented. (45) Therefore, restitutions will have to draw on the well-documented collections of “70,000 items from sub-Saharan Africa housed in the Musee du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac.” They note that the museum also has 90,000 related documents (photographs, graphic art, drawings, post cards, posters, stamps…) that might also be sent to Africa, but are not clear how that process will work. (46)

There are larger number of objects in the collections of the Musee du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac from former French colonies in Africa. (46)

Chad (9,296 objects)

Cameroon (7,838

Madagascar (7,590)

Mali (6,910)

Ivory Coast (3,951)

Benin (3,157),

Republic of the Congo (2,593)

Gabon (2,448)

Senegal (2,281)

Guinea (1,997).

Ethiopia (3,081 pieces)

Ghana (1,656)

Nigeria (1,148)

Democratic Republic of the Congo (1,428)

Southern Africa (1,692 without Madagascar)

East Africa (5,343)

The authors consider how certain time periods correspond to entry of African objects into museums, a period “prior to the Berlin conference that sealed the agreement between the European powers (1884/1885) on how they planned to divide up their control of Africa. The second moment covers the colonial period up until the independence of nations (1960). The third moment began in the 1960s,” (47) and represents an “influx of legally commercial objects bearing an illicit origin”. (49)

(It appears that “legally commercial objects bearing an illicit origin” are objects that were legally imported into France and legally sold under French law, but which will be deemed “illicit” for the purpose of restitution if they were exported without explicit permission from the countries of origin or purchased without what might be called “informed consent” from their original owners. See below.)

This is followed by a description of various “military takings and spoils” (49-53), and “exploratory missions and scientific raids.” (54-57)

The authors recommend that France should respond favorably to requests to restitute objects collected in military contexts. (54)

The authors recommend that France should respond favorably to requests to restitute objects from scientific expeditions unless there is explicit evidence attesting to the full consent of the owners or guardians at the moment when the objects were separated from them. (57)

Savoy and Sarr then discuss gifts to museums from inheritance and acquisition from dealers of objects dating to prior to independence.

The authors recommend that France should respond favorably to requests to restitute objects acquired from dealers prior to independence as well, “unless the consent of the seller (commission of copies, purchase at craft markets) can be ascertained. The main task for this category of objects is to determine who the donors were, beyond their first and last names (involvement in the colonial apparatus? descendants of colonial agents or military


Finally, the authors discuss some countries’ domestic laws on export of objects dating to after independence, and conclude, “We recommend the restitution of objects acquired after 1960 under proven conditions of illicit trade.” (61) “Proven conditions of illicit trade” could be shown through the existence of a law prohibiting export.

The authors recommend researching additional objects requested by African nations but not prioritized in this process, and returning those for which satisfactory provenance cannot be established. (62)

Theyrecommend that France keep only objects where the following criteria have been established:

a. “after confirmation that a freely consented to and documented transaction took place that was agreed upon and equitable.

b. that the pieces acquired conformed to the necessary rigor and careful monitoring of the apparatus in place on the art market after the application of the UNESCO Convention of 1970, in other words, without “taking any ethical risks”.

Gifts from foreign Heads of State to French governments remain as acquisitions for France except in cases where the heads of state concerned have been ruled against for the misuse of public funds.” (62)

Savoy and Sarr recommend a timeline of returns starting its First Phase (November 2018-2019) with the return of a list of important objects to which they give priority. (63-66)

The Second Phase (Spring 2019-November 2022) “involves the process of inventorying, the sharing of digital files, and an intensive transcontinental dialogue.” (66-69)

The Third Phase (November 2022-Open-Ended) is the time frame for receiving requests from African nations. The authors are concerned to avoid precipitate demands for returns by keeping the end-date open. (69)

The third and final chapter, ‘Accompanying the returns,’ defines the chronological, juridical, methodological and financial framework for the return of African cultural heritage items. (71)

The authors support changing France’s current cultural heritage law in a “modification of the cultural heritage code, articulated in the principle of inalienability of public collections.”

They feel that modifying the French legal principle making public museum collections inalienable is an opportunity to prevent trafficking in cultural heritage:

“On the other hand, the restitution of cultural heritage objects shines a light on the fight against the trafficking of cultural goods; beyond the objects taken during the colonial period, African cultural objects have been a primed target of traffickers and forgers, of all nationalities, over the past several decades in the aftermath of the colonial period. The approach of restitution can only lead to questioning the current tools for fighting — or better, for the prevention—of these sorts of trafficking activities, so as to inscribe the objects restituted into a reinforced apparatus of protection.” (72)

They suggest alternatives – recognizing that French law has made exceptions to the inalienability principle with respect to with human remains. (73)

They suggest redefining objects belonging to museums that meet the other criteria for restitution as de facto “non-belonging.” The primary way this could be applied is through finding a technicality on which to exclude them. As they put it, “an original irreparable technicality tarnishing the acquisition,” perhaps as a result of “negligence in the verification of the provenance during the acquisition process,” or “a cancellation by way of the legal path to their acquisition (by sale, gift, or inheritance) on the initiative of the public person exploited.” (74)

“The object thus reputed, will have never entered into public property and therefore will avoid any questions concerning releasing the object from the classification of public property, the new article L. 124-1 of the cultural heritage code prepares the way for the judge to arrange the its restitution to the original owner.” (74)

The authors suggest as the basis for a “juridical apparatus” or judicial system, the signing of bilateral agreements between France and African countries to provide for the restitution not only of objects from museums but also from archives and works from libraries. (77-78)

Restitution would be undertaken on the basis of a formal demand from the country making the request to a joint commission of experts designated by the French government and the African nation making the request. (78-81)

In The Financing of Actions of Restitution, the authors state that funding could come from the Agence Française de Développement (AFD) (French Development Agency) or European funding “from the partnership between the European Union and African Union…to which France contributes 17% for the period running from 2017/2020, that is 5.5 Mds €… from the viewpoint of development aid.” (81-82)

Savoy and Sarr state that “the French State must be carefully attentive to respecting the sovereignty of the various nation-states,” although this does not exclude the possibility of working directly with cultural institutions within the states. It would be the requesting states’ responsibility to give the restituted property back to its community or its original owner. (82)

Closing the report with a section Guaranteeing the Permanence of the Restitutions and Reinforcing the Fight against Illicit Trafficking the authors write as follows:

“The political designs of the re-establishment of this relation requires, so as to guarantee

the permanence of the African collections to Africa, the formulation of a common law

between France and the African States concerning the future of restitutions.” (83)

The authors find that the protections given to good faith buyers under French law, and the potential conflicts with EU regulations are major impediments to restitution (one presumes because they would prevent objects in French collections from being deemed ‘stolen’). (84-85)

Therefore, state Sarr and Savoy, it will be necessary for France to sign the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention concerning stolen cultural objects. (Under the UNIDROIT Convention, an object exported without permission of the country of origin is deemed “‘stolen.’)

“This imbalance between applicable law within the circle of European states, on the one hand, and the principles that the judge opposes to the extra-European states on the other, affects the future of restitutions. The compensation for this imbalance and the writing of a common law of restitution between France and Africa requires that both the France and the African states concerned ratify the UNIDROIT Convention concerning stolen cultural objects adopted on June 24, 1995; This convention puts in place an automatic mechanism of restitution for any future claims.” (85)