Looted, pillaged, stolen…The long process of restituting Africa’s artefacts

By Marie Toulemonde
Posted on Monday, 8 November 2021 09:37

After lengthy negotiations, France has finally agreed to return 26 looted Abomey Treasures to Benin. This is a very timid first step, given the number of looted artefacts still held in Europe and across the Atlantic.

“They will be the pride of Benin. And because returning works to Africa means making its culture accessible to African youth, these restitutions will also be the pride of France.” On 8 October, France’s President Emmanuel Macron officially and enthusiastically announced the first steps he had taken towards honouring the commitment he had made nearly four years ago, during a speech he had delivered in Ouagadougou in November 2017.

This is the final stage in the very long and almost unprecedented process of returning 26 works from the Abomey Treasures collection, which had been looted by General Alfred Dodds in 1897 and kept until now in Paris’ Quai Branly Museum.

A week later, another piece of good news on the restitution front came from Berlin. The German authorities announced that they had signed an agreement with Nigeria to return some 1,100 precious bronzes originating from the Kingdom of Benin (in Nigeria), many of which had been claimed by Abuja for many years. They said they would start returning artefacts from 2023 onwards.

The subject of returning works that were looted during colonial times has always been a source of tension between Africa and Europe. In 2018, the publication of the report that had been commissioned on the subject by the Élysée, and written by Senegal’s Felwine Sarr and France’s Bénédicte Savoy, made history.

Trench warfare

Since then, the number of promises – often symbolic – as well as research and collaboration projects with African countries has increased significantly. For instance, the Benin Dialogue Group, a Nigerian working group responsible for leading discussions with the West, was created.

These types of announcements mask a trench-by-trench war that is being played out on several fronts. The main battle is being fought over which word should be used to describe what is happening with these works. Should we speak of a “return”, of being in “circulation”,  of making a “deposit” or of “restitution”? Should we take into account the context in which these works were brought back to Europe? If the artefact was acquired within a colonial context, does this mean that it was in fact plundered?

These are semantic debates with a high political impact, the answers to which differ from one country to the next. Some fear that a too-broad definition will open Pandora’s box, thereby leading to empty European museums and causing the market for auction houses and private collectors to plummet.

Most former colonial powers now favour a case-by-case, object-by-object approach. In concrete terms, this means investigating the origin of tens of thousands of pieces in order to determine how they were acquired (spoils of war, looting, theft, gifts, barter). This is both an archaeological and historical challenge, especially since in many cases the works passed from hand to hand, from colonial soldier to sailor, via heirs and private collectors, before arriving in museum reserves where, even today, inventories are far from exhaustive.

Who owns the largest number of cultural artefacts looted during colonial times? Who says they are ready to return them? What is the current status of the restitution process? We have it all mapped out for you here:

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