A draft law on the definitive restitution of works of art to Africa discussed in the Council of Ministers

A first draft law on the final restitution by France to African countries of cultural works taken during colonization will be discussed Wednesday, July 15, in the Council of Ministers, we learned Tuesday at the Elysée Palace.

This “bill on the restitution of cultural property to the Republic of Benin and the Republic of Senegal” will, in particular, formally restore with transfer of ownership a sword already on loan to Senegal, which former French Prime Minister Edouard Philippe had symbolically handed over to Senegalese President Macky Sall during a visit to Dakar in November 2019.

It is a historically significant weapon, having belonged to the entourage of El-Hadj Oumar Tall, a Muslim warlord and scholar who conquered in the 19th century a huge territory straddling Senegal, Guinea and Mali, and fought against the French colonial army.

On the Benin side, France has committed to the return of 26 Beninese heritage objects looted during the sacking of the palace of the kings of Abomey by French colonial troops in 1892 and kept in the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques-Chirac in Paris.

The French president, Emmanuel Macron, announced this decision at the end of 2018 following a report he had commissioned on the subject from academics Bénédicte Savoy of the Collège de France and Felwine Sarr of the University of Saint-Louis in Senegal.

Relationships of domination

The two specialists had laid the groundwork for the restitution to sub-Saharan Africa of works of art transferred during colonization, cataloguing tens of thousands of artifacts, many of which had been looted.

But their work has been contested by other specialists and museums such as the Quai Branly, which has the largest collection of primitive art. Their critics have expressed concern about politicizing the debate and the argument that all the works on deposit with them since colonization have been dishonestly acquired or looted and must be returned. They also put forward the argument that French collections are inalienable.

They favoured the “circulation” of works between France and Africa, rather than restitution with transfer of ownership, except when, as in the case of the statues in the royal palace of Abomey, looting by French soldiers at the end of the 19th century was flagrant.

The origin of some works is unknown, others were purchased or collected during ethnological and religious missions under conditions that were questionable because of the relations of domination that governed colonial relations. To put an end to the uncertainties, the authors of the report plead for the means to be given to research in order to remove doubts about the origin of these works whenever possible.


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