About two years ago, France promised to return 26 African artworks belonging to Benin. It is over a century since their forceful removal from the West African nation. Two years on, the country still awaits the fulfillment of that policy. However, a small museum outside Cotonou recently celebrated the return of antique royal scepters. This was a gift from a group of Paris gallery owners.
In 2018, French President Emmanuel Macron ordered the immediate return of the 26 African artworks “without delay”. However, that seems like a far cry. It was only in December 2019 that France’s culture minister gave a concrete timeline on the return. According to the minister, the objects which are now at Paris’ leading African art museum will be returned by 2021. During a visit to Burkina Faso in 2017, President Macron said,
“I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France. There are historical explanations for this but there is no valid, lasting and unconditional justification. African artworks cannot be only in private collections and European museums – it must be showcased in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou. This will be one of my priorities.”
It is estimated that there are over 400,000 art pieces of African artworks in public and private museums across European countries. According to AFP, about 180,000 African artworks are in Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa. Also, Weltmuseum in Austria holds about 37,000 African artworks.
Slow Government Restitution Process
Since the official process of returning stolen artifacts is taking an endless amount of time, a group of Paris Left Bank gallery owners are taking a different approach. The group which calls itself the Petit Musee de la Recade buys these African artworks and returns them to Benin. Recently, they returned over two dozen pieces including 17 scepters from the ancient Kingdom of Dahomey. To date, this is one of their biggest troves.
Apart from buying and returning art pieces, the group has also raised funds to build a small museum outside Cotonou to keep these African artworks. However, the Paris gallery owner, Robert Vallois makes it clear that the gesture is a private initiative rather than part of the government’s restitution of ill-gotten art.
Benin is building a new museum in Abomey with the support of the French government. Abomey was once the capital of the Kingdom of Dahomey. In an interview with VOA sometime in 2019, Jose Pliya, the head of Benin’s national agency for heritage promotion and tourism development explained the importance of the new museum. According to Pliya,
“We really have to have the good condition — temperature, isolation, conservation — to welcome them … a lot of things have to be done. The training of all the conservators in Benin, how to protect the pieces.”
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