Return of cultural goods

Some African cultural heritage is located outside of Africa. The return of artistic works on view in French museums is an important focus of cultural, scientific and museum cooperation between France and African countries. In his speech on 28 November 2017 in Ouagadougou, President Macron reiterated France’s desire to emphasize the importance of African cultural heritage in France and African countries: “Within five years I want the conditions to exist for the temporary or permanent return of African heritage to Africa.”

Conserving artistic works

Public collections in France reflect France’s history, and especially its colonial past. African artistic works, most of which are legally part of public collections, have long been included in the French State’s public domain furniture. Pursuant to existing French legislation, these works are inalienable, imprescriptible and guaranteed against seizure. These essential measures ensure the protection and conservation of cultural goods. Artistic works therefore cannot be transferred or marketed; however, they can be loaned to public and private organizations. The Ministry for Europe and Foreign Affairs, which receives return requests from foreign authorities, is working in this area in close cooperation with the Ministry of Culture, which ensures the integrity of public collections.

Defining a framework for the return of these artistic works

During the visit of Patrice Talon, President of the Republic of Benin (last country to date to have requested the return of goods), on 21 March 2018, President Macron announced that he had appointed two experts to look into these issues. Bénédicte Savoy, a professor at the Collège de France and art historian, and Felwine Sarr, a Senegalese writer and academic, drafted a report that was submitted to President Macron on 23 November 2018.

In line with these steps, and on the recommendation of the Musée Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac and the Ministry of Culture, President Macron announced that he had decided to return 26 artistic works which the Beninese authorities had requested. These works were General Dodds’ spoils of war taken from the Palace of King Behanzin after the bloody battles of 1892. Work is being conducted to verify the origin of artistic works in public collections, their means of acquisition and the procedures for the temporary or definitive return of requested works.

These artistic works could be exhibited for a Beninese and international audience to enjoy in an ambitious museum project run by Benin. Operational measures, and where necessary legislative action, will be taken so that these artistic works can be returned to Benin, together with the expertise of the museum which has conserved them up until now.

These issues not only concern France but also its European partners, such as Germany, and a number of English-speaking institutions that would also like to consider their public collections and their means of acquisition in a different way and engage in constructive dialogue with African authorities.

In this context, President Macron has also proposed that all African and European partners meet in Paris in early 2019 to start building this new relationship and exchange policy.

Updated: February 2019