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November 6, 2020

France to Return Artifacts to Benin and Senegal within a Year

Looted statues from Benin’s Royal Palace of Abomey. Photo: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra.

PARIS, FRANCE

The French Senate on Wednesday unanimously voted to approve a bill that will restore twenty-seven colonial-era artifacts to museums in Benin and Senegal within a year. According to The Art Newspaper, the bill cites twenty-six objects stolen in 1892 from Benin by French troops, and a sword belonging to a West African military commander. The larger group of items is in the possession of the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac in Paris, while the sword is currently on loan from France’s Army Museum to the Museum of Black Civilizations in Dakar, Senegal.

The vote culminated from a 2018 survey known as the Savoy/Sarr report, commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron recommending a series of bilateral agreements aimed at achieving large-scale repatriation of African objects. Macron in a speech of 2017 had committed publicly to the “temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage to Africa” within five years. This year, the government sped up the bill’s procedure, and it last month passed unanimously in the National Assembly ahead of its introduction in the Senate.

According to Artnews, Stéphane Martin, a former president of the Musée du Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac, which earlier this year was targeted by protests demanding the repatriation—criticized the Savoy/Sarr report, characterizing its call for the objects to be returned to their countries of origin “self-flagellation and repentance.” Speaking to Agence France-Presse, French culture minister Roselyne Bachelot said that the bill “is not an act of repentance, but an act of friendship and trust.”

A Senate committee noted the “strictly exceptional, ad hoc and limited character” of the bill, which falls far short of providing for what it called the “excessive” recommendations of the Sarr/Savoy report. The Senate did however call for the establishment of a national council “charged with reflecting on the circulation and return of non-European cultural objects.” As of the 2018 report, some 90,000 African objects were held in French institutions.

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