French report calls for massive restitution of African artefacts

Posted on: November 28, 2018 by

Last week, French President Emmanuel Macron received the report he commissioned in March on the restitution of African artefacts currently held in French Museums. The commission followed the President’s speech in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, delivered one year ago today, in which he had called for “the conditions to be met within five years for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa” (my translation). The report, numbering over 200 pages, is available in both French and English, though the former is the authoritative version. It was drafted by two academics: Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese economist and writer, and Bénédicte Savoy, a French expat working in Berlin.

The report, which had leaked ahead of time to some news outlets, was officially released on Friday evening. It comes as a wrecking ball to the quaint and tranquil world of ethnographic and anthropological museology. According to what the authors write in the report, as well as their subsequent comments in the media, the opportunity had presented itself to at last alter a discourse that had persisted, according to them, for far too long.

For the authors, artefacts collected from 19th century military expeditions and looting (such as the pillage of Abomey by French troops in 1892) should be restituted to African states “swiftly” and “without additional research as to provenance”. This recommendation is made despite the recognition by the authors that the international rules preventing pillage were only codified in 1899, in what became the first Hague Convention on the laws and customs of war (see Article 56 in particular). Therefore it is felt that, even if the legal status of these objects in French collections is beyond reproach, restitution should nevertheless be the outcome.

As for items picked up during the so-called “scientific” missions of the early 20thcentury or anything coming into a museum’s collection from a military or colonial officer, either directly or via family members, the presumption will be for restitution. However, if a museum is able to demonstrate that an item was acquired in Africa pursuant to a “free, equitable and evidenced” transaction, then the museum can retain it. The difficulty, of course, will be in proving that such a transaction occurred.

The scope of the report was only to consider sub-Saharan Africa. And it is also clearly focused on the French colonial domain. The coverage supposedly extends to 1960, the year generally understood to mark the end of French colonial interests in Africa. For items that came into French museum collections after 1960 via gift or loan, the situation becomes a little more complicated, and the authors recognise that in those cases, “additional research” will inevitably be required to see whether they nevertheless fit into the categories described above.

The authors take things a little further in considering museum items acquired after 1970, the year of the UNESCO Convention. For those goods, museums would be able to hold on to them if they can demonstrate that appropriate due diligence was undertaken prior to acquisition. However, it is not explained in any great detail what this due diligence would entail.

Due to the obviously disruptive nature of these suggestions, the report has been heavily criticised in the short time available since its release in art historian and museum circles alike. There is some validity to the criticism. France is estimated to hold at least 90,000 African artefacts in its museums (as many as 70,000 alone in the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum in Paris) and having to restitute a great many of these – whether “swiftly” or through the reverse-burden of proof – would be a bureaucratic nightmare for museums who are already overstretched, underfunded and having to defend their very raison d’être in the modern world at every turn. It would also cost a small fortune.

Royal anthropo-zoomorhphic sculpture, Abomey, Benin, Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, Paris, donated by the heirs of General Dodds who led the attack on Abomey in 1892 and acquired the sculpture in the aftermath (fig. 7 in the Sarr Savoy report).

Even more uncertain is the legal mechanism by which such restitutions would be accomplished. This is a major issue in France where all public collections are considered inalienable, meaning it is impossible to remove even the smallest fragment from a museum’s collection, whether to sell it or, more altruistically, to restitute it. To get around the inalienability, the authors, who it should be mentioned have been supported in their task by an esteemed legal expert from the University of Paris X Nanterre, Vincent Négri, have proposed the following: that the restitutions to an African country occur within the parameters of a bilateral agreement between France and the relevant country. By creating an obligation through France’s international relations, it is suggested that restitution of the artefacts would override any domestic principle of inalienability. This schema would, if the proposals are approved, form part of the Code du Patrimoine (the French heritage law), thereby giving the entire arrangement a legal basis.

As for President Macron, a release from his office accompanied the circulation of the report on Friday. Most remarkable in the statement is a promise to return, it seems immediately, 26 objects that had been taken by French forces from Abomey in 1892. Those items, which include a remarkable lion-headed man nearly two metres tall (see image on left), would go to the small west African country of Benin, on whose territory the Dahomey Kingdom once existed.

An important point that comes across in the President’s press release is an obvious interest in exploring other forms of restitution, meaning non-permanent restitutions such as joint exhibitions, loans, exchanges and the like, as well as cooperation between France and African countries. The authors of the report had preferred not to consider “temporary” restitutions, which had been included in the initial Burkina Faso speech of 2017, except insofar as they are transitional and lead towards permanent restitution. This is a rather contentious reading of the initial mandate, but it makes clear the position of the authors (if ever evidence were needed): they aren’t concerned with halfway measures. They have seen an opening – possibly a paradigm shift in this area – and they have pushed ahead with a proposal that envisages the wide-scale return of cultural artefacts to sub-Saharan Africa. The question remains whether President Macron will do anything more about it.

A longer version of this article appeared in The Art Newspaper on 28 November 2018 and in The Globe and Mail on 1 December 2018.