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Macron Orders Return of Looted Benin Thrones and Statues ‘Without Delay’

The French president has acted swiftly following a landmark study on the ownership of African treasures

Treasures of the Kingdom of Dahomey at the Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac, 2018. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Gerard Julien

Treasures of the Kingdom of Dahomey at the Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac, 2018. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Gerard Julien

Treasures of the Kingdom of Dahomey at the Quai Branly Museum-Jacques Chirac, 2018. Courtesy: AFP/Getty Images; photograph: Gerard Julien

French president Emmanuel Macron has agreed to return 26 artworks taken from the west African state of Benin during the colonial era, after a report commissioned by Macron recommended that the objects be returned to their countries of origin.

The 26 works, which include royal statues from the Palaces of Abomey, a World Heritage Site in Benin, will be returned ‘without delay’, Macron said on Saturday. Taken by the French army as spoils of war during a colonial conflict in 1892 against what was then the Kingdom of Dahomey, the objects are currently housed in the Quai Branly Museum, Paris. Ousmane Aledji, director of a cultural centre in Benin told AFP that he was pleased to see ‘a new form of cultural exchange’ with France.

The decision to return the works comes after the French president commissioned a report on the restitution of artworks taken from Africa during the colonial period. The authors, Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Bénédicte Savoy, found that unless it could be proven that an object had been obtained legitimately, they should be returned permanently, rather than on long-term loan, to their country of origin.

According to Sarr and Savoy’s report, around 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage currently resides in collections outside of the continent. And of the estimated 90,000 African artworks held in French museum collections, around 70,000 are thought to be contained in the Quai Branly’s. Sarr and Savoy’s report alleges that most of the Quai Branly’s Africa collection was acquired under duress. The report concluded by recommending that French law should be changed to permit the restitution of cultural artefacts to the relevant African country.

In a statement issued by the Élysée palace, Macron suggested that this would not be an isolated case. The president also hoped ‘that all possible circulation of these works is considered: returns but also exhibitions, loans, further cooperation’, the palace said. Macron has invited his new culture minister Franck Riester to organize a Euro-African conference with the Foreign Affairs Ministry to structure the ‘circulation of these works’.

However, some of the more controversial points in Sarr and Savoy’s report have yet to be addressed by the president: while the authors also called for the restitutions of items obtained on ethnographic missions, no such objects obtained on these missions have been included in Macron’s first round of returns.

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