New Report Urges Major Initiative To Facilitate Restitution of Art and Artifacts From France to African Nations
11/26/2018Last December, France’s president, Emmanuel Macron, gave a speech lamenting the fact that French museums hold a vast array of African art and artifacts, and pledged that, “In the next five years, I want the conditions to be created for the temporary or permanent restitution of African patrimony to Africa.” At the time, there was little in the way of specific detail about how that might happen, but this past spring, Macron commissioned a study to examine how that objective could be accomplished. Now, the experts tasked with that study have released a key report that makes a variety of recommendations that, if implemented, would represent a massive repatriation project for France.
The new report was authored by a French historian, Bénédicte Savoy, and a Senegalese economist, Felwine Sarr. Significantly, they argue that France should aim to repatriate most artifacts via outright transfer back to the governments of African nations, as opposed to a mere loan or some other measure short of full ownership transfer. They urge France to jump-start the effort by returning a small group of important, specifically identified works immediately; most of those works were taken from Africa by French or British troops during the 19th century. Following that initial action, a second phase of the project would involve a more methodical five-year process of collaborating with African governments to identify additional works to be returned. The works that would be subject to scrutiny would include not only property seized by France’s military during the colonial era, but also items collected by missionaries, ethnographic or scientific studies, and government administrators and civil servants. (It should be noted that the report only deals with objects that came from Sub-Saharan Africa, as opposed to North African nations—such as Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia—where France has also had a significant presence over the centuries.) The efforts would require some changes to French law, which currently limits the country’s ability to transfer museum property outside the country.
The report seems likely to encounter some resistance from various quarters, including museum and government officials, some of whom have expressed concerns on a variety of fronts, including questions about how the objects will be kept, conserved, and displayed after repatriation. Others have raised questions about how France will deal with artifacts to which more than one African nation may have a claim (since present-day political borders often do not correspond to the geographical areas occupied by various historical African cultures that existed at the time these artifacts were removed from their homes). Still others note that the effort might lead to an influx of claims involving artifacts taken from other former French colonies (for example, in the south Pacific). But one of the report’s authors advocates that these issues should be left to African stakeholders to decide, and that they do not trump France’s duty to repatriate this type of property.
Indeed, just days after the report made the news, Macron ordered the return of 26 objects to their country of origin, Benin, on a temporary basis, pending arrangements for a more permanent legal transfer. One press account indicated that discussions regarding those objects had been underway for months, but the announcement is nonetheless highlighted by its proximity to the release of the report. And the British Museum has also announced this week that it will be returning a group of significant artifacts to Nigeria, although that transfer too is, at least for now, only on a temporary basis.
The issue of restitution of objects obtained during France’s colonial era has been a topic of discussion there for years, but took on new stature in recent years due to, among other things, formal requests by African governments to return specific objects. And indeed, the report seems likely to spark larger conversations in the art community, including in institutions outside France that hold objects with troubled histories (from a famed Easter Island statue to the Elgin Marbles). Likewise, collectors who may be donors or potential donors to museums around the globe will probably be interested in following the debate in France.
As this blog has observed on previous occasions (see, for example, here and here), the art world is engaged in a long and intense conversation about restitution of art and artifacts that were looted or otherwise taken without consent during times of war, unrest, colonialism, and conflict. While litigation remains one forum for these conversations, there is increasing interest in voluntary restitution efforts—not only by governments, but also by private institutions and even individual collectors—whereby an object’s current possessor makes the necessary legal and logistical arrangements to return an object to its previous home or owner. Such efforts frequently involve complex negotiations, delicate balancing of conflicting interests, and comprehensive agreements, but, when done carefully, can sometimes allow stakeholders to reach a satisfactory outcome in an area of art law that comes with no easy answers.
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