July 20, 2020

France Takes Legal Steps toward Restitution of African Objects

PARIS, FRANCE—On Wednesday, the French government examined the first draft of a law that would require collections to repatriate specific looted objects within a year. Since French president Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 vow to return African items taken during the colonial era, the country’s definition of its national museums’ holdings as “inalienable” has thus far legally prevented their deaccession. The new law, which still needs to be adopted by French parliament, would suspend this special status for a limited period of time in order to allow the restitution of twenty-seven objects looted from the former colonies of Benin and Senegal.

A 2018 report by academics Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr found that more than ninety thousand items from Sub-Saharan Africa are stored in French collections, with most of them housed in Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly. The institution currently holds twenty-six statues, taken from the West African royal palace of Abomey in 1892, which the new legislation would see returned to the Republic of Benin. The law also specifies the permanent restitution of a sword seized by French troops from Omar Saïdou Tall, a Muslim leader who battled the country’s colonialists in the 1850s. Last year, French prime minister Édouard Philippe loaned the sword to Senegalese president Macky Sall as a symbol of the government’s commitment to the restitution of African heritage artifacts. While the piece is now on display at Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations, its ownership cannot be formally transferred until “inalienability” is suspended.

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