United World Project


Stolen Works of Art about to be Returned

12 December 2018   |   France, Colonialism, French Republic

By Armand Djoualeu.

France has decided to return the masterpieces stolen in the colonial era, after the publication of a report by Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr on the African heritage ordered by Macron.

It could be a massive earthquake in the world of culture. Africa will finally be rewarded with the return of its artistic treasures taken unlawfully from colonial France and even after that. On 23 November, in fact, Jean-Claude Bénédicte Savoy and Jean-Claude Felwine Sarr, two French and Senegalese academics, presented their report to French President Emmanuel Macron. They state that “almost all the artistic heritage of the African countries located south of the Sahara is preserved outside the African continent”. The document provides an accurate inventory of the dozens of thousands of objects that the settlers brought back from Africa between 1885 and 1960.

This list includes purloined, stolen, plundered items, but also many objects that were bought on a bargain by merchants, soldiers, missionaries, travellers, regardless of market prices… According to this report, “At least 90,000 art objects from sub-Saharan Africa have ended up in French public collections”.

The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris is the most concerned because it holds 70,000 of these works, two-thirds of which were “acquired” between 1885 and 1960. The countries most affected by such embezzlement are Chad (9,200 artworks), Cameroon (7,800) and Madagascar (7,500).

According to the Cameroonian historian and political scientist Achille Mbembe, “the restitution of the works is an opportunity for France to rebuild and reinvent its relations with Africa“. But, as expected, this eventual exercise of justice did not enthuse the French political class at all. The Minister of Culture, Franck Riester, has been vague about how to proceed with the restitution. He proposed “loans, long-term deposits, exhibitions and exchanges”. This is an issue that follows along the lines of the defensive positions taken by the Academy of Fine Arts and the Quai Branly Museum, yet is in contrast with the position of the authors of the report, who suggest in particular that the Code of Heritage be amended and that African objects be returned within the framework of “cultural cooperation agreements” between “the French Government and individual African States”. Achille Mbembe believes that “it is time to close a chapter in history because the continent, in full cultural and intellectual boom, has become one of the gravity centres of the world”.

Emmanuel Macron made a decisive move, by returning “with no delay” 26 artworks requested by the authorities of Benin, which the French army stole in the war of 1892. In addition, there is also the intention to “meet in Paris during the first quarter of 2019” all the African and European partners “to define the framework of a policy of exchange” of works of art. But it is clear that the ties that unite the African continent to the West are so intertwined that we are not close to having such rapid decisions.