Eight months on from Sarr Savoy and… still waiting

Posted on: August 7, 2019 by

Since the release of the Sarr Savoy Report at the end of November (over eight months ago), there has not been the feared avalanche of returns to Africa of artefacts from French public collections. Far from it. In fact, the latest public actions on the part of the French government seem to show a retreat from the propositions of the report. As The Art Newspaper reported last month, a low-key conference in Paris included a statement by the French culture minister that ‘France will examine all requests presented by African nations’, suggesting that claimants ‘not focus on the sole issue of restitution’. A far cry from the numerous ‘swift restitutions’ proposed by authors Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr in their November report.

This is perhaps no surprise. The suggestions put forward in the report had from the onset been far-reaching and controversial. The premise was that any item originating from sub-Saharan Africa in a French public collection (estimates put the number at some 90,000 items) should be returned if it had been taken without consent. In particular, the report allowed French museums to retain such artefacts only if they could prove that the item had left its place of origin subject to a free, fair and documented transaction, a reverse burden of proof that would place incredible pressure on museums and their provenance researchers. French President Emmanuel Macron showed himself hesitant with the conclusions of the report, receiving it with a worthy but timid promise to return some 26 artefacts from the Quai Branly Museum in Paris to the small west African country of Bénin.

As I mentioned after the report came out, there were some specifics in Macron’s mission letter that had been purposely ignored by the report’s authors, most notably in regards to possible ‘temporary restitutions’, that is returns to Africa through touring exhibits, long-term loans and the like. The report’s authors didn’t mince their words when it came to this possibility: it simply did not go far enough. As they wrote at page 28 of the English version, ‘The present report explores and defends the path toward permanent restitutions.’ Enough said.

So perhaps it is to be expected that, seeing the magnitude of the demands set out in the report, government responded as it always does: by compromise, the dragging of feet and the cutting of corners. This will no doubt be a letdown to the African countries that have already expressed interest in seeing key artefacts returned (such as Senegal and the Ivory Coast). And time will tell how the 26 pieces promised by Macron will ever make it back to Bénin, an action that would require a change to French legislation. No bill on the matter has yet been placed before the French National Assembly. The first step appears to be an investment (by way of loan) by France of some €20 million to the country in order to build up its museum infrastructure.

But we appear a long way off from the wide-scale returns indicated only a few months ago.