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France Agree to Return Stolen African Treasures. But Few Are Heading Back.

Shared Article By Farah Nayeri of the New York Times

The country seemed to be leading the way on the restitution of Africa’s cultural heritage. But a year after a pioneering report, little has happened.


A year ago this week, in a pioneering announcement, President Emmanuel Macron of France said that his country would give back 26 looted treasures to the African state of Benin. It was a bold statement by the leader of a former colonial power. He also took delivery of an independent report he had commissioned, which sent shock waves through museums around the world.

In the report, two academics, Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr, recommended that objects removed in colonial times without the consent of their country of origin be permanently returned, if the country asks for them. But 12 months later, and two years since Mr. Macron pledged in a speech in Burkina Faso to enable “the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa,” little additional progress has been made.

France says it will examine all requests by African states for specific objects, and otherwise pursue alternative forms of cultural exchange, such as long-term loans. The Benin treasures remain in Paris awaiting parliamentary legislation to allow their restitution, and only one other restitution has been announced: the return to Senegal of a saber once owned by Omar Saidou Tall, a 19th-century spiritual leader and military commander. Still, the change in French thinking, though only timidly reflected in policy, has prompted a shift in global attitudes toward restitution. Debates, publications, and public or private initiatives have surfaced in support of Africa’s campaign to access its cultural heritage, most of which sits in the museums of its former European colonizers. This month, the Open Society Foundations, set up by the billionaire George Soros, announced a four-year, $15 million initiative to help Africa get back looted cultural objects.


In an interview, Mr. Sarr, the co-author of the French report, said, “The question of restitution is being increasingly debated in Europe, Africa, and the United States by intellectuals, artists, civil society, researchers. It’s become a central question, and real progress has been made.”


But in France, “things are not moving as fast as we would have liked,” Mr. Sarr added. “The French government is striving for a middle way that would be a mix of restitution and circulation. From a historical standpoint, that’s a retreat.”

The French culture minister, Franck Riester, speaking in a telephone interview from Dakar, Senegal, the day after the 19th-century sword was handed over, defended the progress. “Nothing has changed in the French thinking,” he said.


He noted that the Savoy-Sarr report, though interesting and far-reaching, “does not commit the president or the government in any way.” His ministry was, Mr. Riester said, busy putting Mr. Macron’s speech in Burkina Faso into practice.

He noted that the Savoy-Sarr report, though interesting and far-reaching, “does not commit the president or the government in any way.” His ministry was, Mr. Riester said, busy putting Mr. Macron’s speech in Burkina Faso into practice.

Germany is returning a few objects, has promised to give back others, and has generally embraced the notion of restitution.


Find Article on NY Times: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/22/arts/design/restitution-france-africa.html


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