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THERE WAS A time when the principle of returning to African countries art and artifacts removed under colonial rule seemed on its way to becoming an international norm. In 1978 the director-general of UNESCO, Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, argued for the return to African societies not of every work of art in Western collections, but “at least the art treasures which best represent their culture, which they feel are the most vital and whose absence causes them the greatest anguish.” He added: “This is a legitimate claim.”[simple_tooltip content=’Amadou-Mahtar M’Bow, quoted in Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy, Rapport sur la restitution du patrimoine culturel africain: Vers une nouvelle éthique relationnelle, November 2018,, p. 15–16. All translations from the French are by the author.’]1[/simple_tooltip]

He was heard. The star French TV anchorman of his day, Roger Gicquel, made the case that restitutions were appropriate—in fact necessary—for true cultural preservation. In 1982 France’s government commissioned a study led by Pierre Quoniam, a senior official in the museums service, who recommended restitutions as an “act of equity and solidarity” demonstrating an “effort of intelligence.”[simple_tooltip content=’Pierre Quoniam, quoted in ibid., p. 16.’]2[/simple_tooltip] Hildegard Hamm-Brücher, a German government minister, put forth a similar view. Meanwhile UNESCO moved ahead and circulated a standard form for restitution requests.

Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy unearthed this information in conducting research for The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, the report they submitted in November 2018 to French president Emmanuel Macron. It is the first serious revival of the issue by the national authorities of a former colonial power since that bygone era, after which the vision of mutually beneficial North-South relations gave way to neoliberal austerity in the rich countries and the imposition of “structural adjustment” budget cuts in the poor ones. In France, the Quoniam study was relegated to the archives. There is apparently no record of the UNESCO form ever having been used. Assorted activist groups have continued to plead for restitution over the decades, and several African governments have made periodic public claims. Yet on the whole, as Sarr and Savoy write, “Nothing has moved in forty years.”[simple_tooltip content=’Sarr and Savoy, p. 16.’]3[/simple_tooltip]

Restitution is a fraught project. Throughout history, art objects gathered in the course of war, conquest, and the pursuit of colonial control have found their way into private and public collections in the victorious nation—or been scattered widely through sales and transfers. In the postcolonial era, many nations that were once subject to a foreign power have demanded the return of important artifacts. Since the mid-nineteenth century, successive Greek governments have called upon the British Museum to return the so-called Elgin Marbles—sculptures removed from the Parthenon in 1817 at the direction of a British noble, supposedly with permission from the Ottoman Sultan who ruled Greece at the time. The most high-profile African case involves the Benin Bronzes, a vast cache that the invading British soldiers looted during a punitive raid on Benin City, in present-day Nigeria, in 1897. Roughly one thousand of these pieces are in the British Museum and other Western institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Some of the institutions (though not the Met) have reached an agreement with Nigerian authorities to send one set of works to a new museum under construction in Benin City. Still, the arrangement is only provisional—more of a long-term loan than a transfer—and Nigeria continues to press its permanent restitution claims. Indeed, all the current instances of African art being returned to its country of origin are case-by-case, and most fall short of the full and permanent transfer of ownership that the word restitution entails. That a former colonial power would review all the African works in its public holdings that might have been extracted on illegitimate or unequal terms and devise an official restitutions policy was an idea beyond the most optimistic advocates’ dreams.

Hence the general surprise when Macron, apparently unprompted, announced in a 2017 speech to students at the University of Ouagadougou in Burkina Faso that he planned to make possible “permanent or temporary” restitution of African art objects within five years. Just one year earlier, France, under the government of François Hollande, had turned down a request for restitution of works from the Republic of Benin, invoking a long-held legalistic excuse: French law does not permit deaccessioning of public collections, thus the request could not be entertained. It was head-spinning to see a new president tweeting: “African cultural heritage cannot be kept prisoner of European museums.”

Any doubts as to Macron’s interest in a serious policy review ended when he selected Sarr and Savoy to make recommendations. Neither is a bureaucrat, neither is from the museum establishment, and neither emerges from the tangle of political and business interests known as Françafrique that binds together powerful elites in France and its former colonies. Sarr, who teaches at the Université Gaston-Berger in Saint-Louis, in his home country of Senegal, is an economist with an alternative bent; his work on Africa’s future prospects has a philosophical cast, and is sympathetic to both the Afrocentric thinking of Cheikh Anta Diop and the anti-colonial psychological perspectives of Frantz Fanon. Savoy, a French art historian, is based at the Technische Universität in Berlin. She is an expert on art transfers, looting, and theft in the European context; Africa was new to her. Clearly, the look that Macron sought was one that would be analytically rigorous, but pointedly fresh.

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