PARIS—In a decision with potential ramifications across European museums, France is displaying 26 looted colonial-era artifacts for one last time before returning them home to Benin.
The wooden anthropomorphic statues, royal thrones, and sacred altars were pilfered by the French army in the 19th century from western Africa. The French will have a final glimpse of the objects, from the collection known as the “Abomey Treasures,” in the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac from Tuesday through Sunday.
President Emmanuel Macron made a speech in 2017 in which he said he can no longer accept “that a large part of many African countries’ cultural heritage lies in France.” It laid down a roadmap for the return of the royal treasures taken during the era of empire and colony.
So far, however, France has only turned over one item—a storied sword handed to the Army Museum in Senegal. And the 26 works going to Benin represent a tiny handful of the more than 90,000 artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa alone held in French museums.
Yet critics of such moves—including London’s British Museum, in a decades-long tug-of-war with the Greek government over a restitution of the Elgin Marbles—argue that it will open the floodgates to emptying Western museums of their collections. Many are made up of objects acquired, or stolen, during colonial times.
French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot tried to assuage jitters among European museums, emphasizing that this initiative “will not create a legal precedent.”
A French law was passed last year to allow the restitution of the statues to Benin, and the sword to Senegal.
But she said that the French government’s law was intentionally specific in applying solely to the 27 artifacts. “[It] does not establish any general right to restitution” and “in no way calls into question” the right of French museums to hold on to their heritage.
The story of the “Abomey Treasures” is as dramatic as their sculpted forms. In November 1892, Colonel Alfred Dodds led a pilfering French expeditionary force into the Kingdom of Danhomè located in the south of present-day Benin. The colonizing troops broke into the Abomey Palace, home of King Behanzin, seizing as they did many royal objects including the 26 artifacts that Dodds donated to the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro in Paris in the 1890s. Since the 2000s, the objects have been housed at the Musée du quai Branly–Jacques Chirac.
One hundred and twenty nine years later, their far-flung journey abroad will finally end.
Benin’s Culture Minister Jean-Michel Abimbola called the return of the works a “historic milestone,” and the beginning of further cooperation between the two countries, during a news conference last week. The country is founding a museum in Abomey to house the treasures that will be partly funded by the French government. The French Development Agency will give some 35 million euros toward the “Museum of the Saga of the Amazonians and the Danhome Kings” under a pledge signed this year.
The official transfer of the 26 pieces is expected to be signed in Paris on Nov. 9 in the presence of Macron, and the art is expected to be in Benin a few days later, Abimbola said.
While locals say the decision is overdue, what’s important is that the art will be returned. “It was a vacuum created among Benin’s historical treasures, which is gradually being reconstituted,” said Fortune Sossa, President of the African Cultural Journalists Network.
By Thomas Adamson