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The transfer to Benin includes 26 pieces – statues, royal seat, doors worked in particular – of the “Treasure of Behanzin” from the looting of the palace of Abomey in 1892. They are now in the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris.
French President Emmanuel Macron had announced their “immediate restitution” during his trip to Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, in November 2017, but the process of transferring ownership stalled afterwards.
For its part, Senegal wants to recover a sword and its scabbard attributed to El Hadj Omar Tall, a great West African military and religious figure of the 19th century, confiscated by General Archinard during the colonial conquest of West Africa by France.
Held by the Musée de l’Armée (Army Museum) in Paris, these objects had been symbolically handed over – in the form of a five-year loan – by France to Senegal’s President Macky Sall during a visit to Dakar of then Prime Minister Édouard Philippe in November 2019.
They are now on display in the Senegalese capital.
Ad hoc” refunds
The bill was passed by 49 votes for and none against in the National Assembly on 6 October, and is now to be considered by the Senate. The restitution of these “spoils of war” is part of a “strengthened willingness to cooperate” with Benin and Senegal, said the French Minister of Foreign Trade, Franck Riester, who came to defend the text in place of the Minister of Culture, Roselyne Bachelot, who was in isolation following a “contact case” of COVID-19.
Although the French minister insisted on the punctual nature of these restitutions, the case is being treated as a particular one, in response to fears that they would open the way to an increased number of claims and the loss of a large number of works held by French museums.
The project “applies only to these specific cases” and “in no way derogates from the general principle” on the inalienable character of French public collections, he said.
Benin is the first African country to have asked France, in 2016, to return its heritage. “Voting a specific law to restore 26 works is a strict minimum, said President Patrice Talon in September, in an interview with The Africa Report/Jeune Afrique.
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“What we want is a general law that authorises the executive to negotiate with us a global restitution based on a precise inventory. Then, in a win-win spirit, to discuss what goes to each other, joint exhibitions, originals and copies, etc., in a spirit of mutual respect. This cooperative dynamic is preferable to legal action.”
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