Macron advised to give back African artworks

A funerary crown of the Kingdom of Dahomey dating from 1860-1889, at the Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac in Paris. France is looking at returning African artworks
A funerary crown of the Kingdom of Dahomey dating from 1860-1889, at the Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac in Paris. France is looking at returning African artworks
Image: 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 its cultural treasures, but French law strictly forbids the government from ceding state property, even in well-documented cases of pillaging.

Yet Macron raised hopes for a change during a speech in Burkina Faso in November 2017, saying “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.

It was welcomed by advocates of the restitution of works which were bought, bartered or, in some cases, stolen.

“Today it feels as if we’re just a step away from recovering our history and being finally able to share it on the continent,” Marie-Cecile Zinsou, a daughter of Benin’s former prime minister and president of the Zinsou Art Foundation in Cotonou, said.

The issue was thrust into the spotlight in 2016 when President Patrice Talon of Benin asked France to return items, including carvings, sceptres and sacred doors, from the palaces of Abomey, formerly the capital of the kingdom of Dahomey.

France refused, citing its law that museums are forbidden from permanently parting with any piece in their collections.

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

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

They point to the fact that many objects came from kingdoms which no longer exist, while others were obtained legitimately.

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

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

Britain too has faced calls to return artifacts, 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 a famous statue.

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.

The report said collections in Europe were effectively depriving Africans of their artistic and cultural heritage.