French President Emmanuel Macron has agreed to return, “without delay”, 26 African artworks claimed by Benin, according to the president’s office.
The decision on Friday came shortly after Macron received a report detailing how former colonisers can return looted artworks to Africa.
Governments from Ethiopia to Senegal eagerly awaited the report, commissioned by Macron and compiled by French art historian, Benedicte Savoy, and Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr.
It recommends that the thousands of items in French museums taken without consent during the colonial period be returned to the continent.
Unless it can be proven that the objects were obtained legitimately, they should be returned to Africa permanently, the report’s authors say.
Savoy and Starr also recommend changing the French law to allow the restitution of cultural works to Africa, after Macron announced that he wanted the process to begin within five years.
French law currently forbids the government from ceding state property, regardless of how it was obtained.
“I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France,” Macron said during a visit to Burkina Faso last year.
“There are historical explanations for this but there is no valid, lasting and unconditional justification. African heritage cannot be only in private collections and European museums – it must be showcased in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou. This will be one of my priorities,” he said.
‘A new era of thought’
At the height of its colonial empire, France controlled large swaths of the African continent, removing art produced there for display in museums in the French capital, Paris, and elsewhere.
Objects that arrived in France went on to influence the work of major figures in European art, such as Spanish artist, Pablo Picasso, and Italian painter and sculptor, Amedeo Modigliani.
According to the report, about 90 percent of African art is currently housed in museums and private collections outside the continent, including statues, thrones and manuscripts.
There are about 90,000 African artworks in French museums, most of them housed in Paris’ Quai Branly museum, which also boasts a large collection of Asian art.
The museum was established by former French President Jacques Chirac, an avid collector of African art.
While the decision has been welcomed by officials in some African countries, European art dealers have expressed concerns that repatriation will leave some French museums nearly empty.
The dealers have also questioned who the objects should be returned to when many of the kingdoms and civilisations they were taken from no longer exist.
However, the head of Ethiopia’s Authority for Research and Conservation of Cultural Heritage had said the report heralded “a new era of thought” in Europe’s relations with Africa, while Senegal’s culture minister Youssou Ndour said it was “entirely logical that Africans should get back their works”.
Thorny diplomatic issue
France’s decision could up the pressure on other European governments and museums to return looted artefacts, which can become a diplomatic headache as well as a painful reminder of colonialism.
According to the AFP news agency, approximately 180,000 African artworks are held in Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa, while 37,000 more are in the Weltmuseum in Austria.
The British Museum in London is also in talks to return artefacts, looted from the ancient Benin kingdom, to Nigeria, which now occupies the territory.
This month, a Chilean delegation travelled to the United Kingdom to request the return of artefacts from two London museums.
The UK is also embroiled in a prolonged standoff with Greece over the Elgin Marbles, also known as the Parthenon Marbles, which were removed from Athens in the 1800s.
Museums frequently cite concerns over whether countries have a suitable place to display repatriated treasures, as well as the skills to maintain them.
However, in recent years, some European museums have returned a number of items to their countries of origin.
In August, the British Museum repatriated a trove of 5,000-year old objects looted from an ancient site in Iraq shortly after the United States’ invasion in 2003.
France returned 20 mummified Maori heads to New Zealand in 2012, as part of a repatriation programme of the National Museum of New Zealand, which also secured the return of Maori objects from other countries.