5 key points to understand the art restitution debate

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Left: anthropomorphic Statue of Behanzin, Door of Abomey royal Palace, Both held at musee du quai Branly Jacques Chirac. Pic by Screenshot
Left: anthropomorphic statue of King Behanzin, right: Door of Abomey royal Palace, both held at musée du quai Branly Jacques Chirac. (source: musée du quai Branly Jacques Chirac)

In a speech on Nov 28th in Ouagadougou, President Macron promised to make the restitution of African heritage held in France, a “top priority over the next 5 years”. The announcement was hailed as historic and marked a departure from France’s official position. It has re-ignited a passionate debate about restitution, national heritage and ownership. The outcome may well serve as a blueprint for other countries making similar claims from old colonial powers. Here is what you need to know to make sense of the debate in 5 key elements.

1. Origins

Kingdom of Dahomey. Source Encyclopædia Britannica
Kingdom of Dahomey. Source Encyclopædia Britannica

In the 19th century Dahomey was a prosperous Kingdom located in the southern part of present day Republic of Benin (West Africa). In January 1890, Prince Kondo, heir to the Kingdom of Dahomey became King Behanzin. At 45 years old, he became the 11th King of Dahomey amidst rising tensions with the French who were coveting his territory. A first war erupted that year, followed by a second and final one in 1892. In November 1892, the French troops led by General Alfred-Amédée Dodds took the Palace of Abomey and the main symbols of the King’s authority and power. The war ended when King Behanzin surrendered in January 1894 and was sent into exile.

2. The artworks and artifacts taken

Left: Throne. Right Recade. Screenshot of items donated by General Dodds. Source musee du quai Branly Jacques Chirac
Left: Throne. Right Recade. Screenshot of items donated by General Dodds. Source musée du quai Branly Jacques Chirac

There is no official record of the artworks and artifacts taken from the Kingdom during, before, or even after that war. Various estimates have been published. Benin Ambassador to Unesco estimated that there were about 4,500 to 6,000 items kept abroad in public institutions and private collections. Aminata Traoré, previous Malian Culture Minister, went as far as to say that 90% of African art were being held abroad privately and in public institutions.

The only artworks and artifacts easily traceable are the 27 listed in the catalogue of the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, as donated by General Dodds.

3. The restitution quest

In 1993, members of the civil society called on the French government to return the artworks to Benin. However it wasn’t until August 26th 2016, when a new administration took over, that Benin wrote an official letter to the French Government demanding the return of the artworks. In December 2016, the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs rejected their claim on the basis that the artworks were now part of the “public domain” and as such aresubject to principles of inalienability, imprescriptibility, and unseizability”.

4. The legal wrangling

The issue of restitution is usually subject to very complex legal discussions. France’s decision is legally underpinned by two of their laws. The principle of inalienability was enacted in 1566 with the edict of Moulins. In laymen’s terms, it implied that some royal assets could no longer be given away. The principle of inalienability was further re-asserted in a law voted on 4 January 2002 and applicable to artworks held in the collections of state intuitions.

However set in stone these successive pieces of legislation appear to be, there are ways to legally allow for cultural items to be removed from the French “public domain” and returned. France as a colonial power, that was itself occupied during the second world war has come to realize that it may be holding artworks, whose provenance is dubious or that are unethical by their very nature. It established in April 2002, a scientific advisory committee, whose purpose is to examine contested pieces of art and “declassify” them, thus paving the way for them to be legally returned.

The other legal option to remove an item from the French “public domain” is through a special bill that is debated by parliament. After a lengthy legal battle, that was the option selected in dealing with the “Maori” heads that were held in various French museums. They were returned to New Zealand in 2011.

There is another international pathway to transfer the “ownership of Cultural Property”. It was established by Unesco in 1970. It creates the framework for international cooperation between the signatory states, supports the prevention of theft and organises the return of stolen artworks. It is not retroactive and consequently cannot be used in this specific case.

5. What’s next for the request by the Republic of Benin?

In a subsequent tweet, president Macron confirmed his position when he stated that “African Heritage [could not] be held prisoner in European Museums”. He mentioned loaning the disputed items back to the country, an option that could circumvent all the legal process aforementioned. Back in 2006, to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of King Behanzin’s death, the musée du quai du Branly loaned some pieces to Fondation Zinsou for 3 months. About 270 000 people saw the exhibition, proof of the interest that the country has for these remnants of its history.

Seven years ago, President Sarkozy was widely criticized for agreeing to a 5 year renewable loan of 297 old manuscripts to South Korea, which French soldiers took in 1867. There is no doubt that there will be a fresh wave of criticism leveled against Mr Macron’s scheme. Some people may be alarmed by the prospect of empty cabinets in some French museums if other countries were to emulate Benin and claim their heritage too. But just as Mr Macron said, during his African tour, the time has come for France and Africa to write a new chapter of their shared history. And that cannot be written when African people cannot access fragments of their own history. The restitution hasn’t happened yet, but this is the most encouraging sign so far, that it could happen soon.

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