“A testimony that we existed”: Benin receives looted art from France


French President Emmanuel Macron and Benin’s President Patrice Talon walk to the Elysee Palace in Paris, France on November 9, 2021 after signing an agreement on the return of looted cultural property to the African country. REUTERS / Sarah Meyssonnier

COTONOU, Nov 10 (Reuters) – 26 works of art confiscated from French colonial soldiers in 1892 returned to Benin on Wednesday, a milestone in the long struggle of African countries to recover looted artifacts.

The works, which include the doors of the Abomey Palace, royal thrones and warrior dance staves, were officially welcomed in Benin at a ceremony presided over by President Patrice Talon.

Talon received the work on Tuesday from the French government in Paris.

“This return is a testimony to what we were, a testimony that we existed before, a testimony of what we knew,” Talon said to an audience that included representatives of the Benin royal families.

The artifacts will initially be housed in a museum in the city of Ouidah before being transferred to a new museum in Abomey, the site of the royal palaces of the Dahomey Kingdom.

The restitution is the largest France has given a former colony, but it represents only a fraction of the 5,000 works that Benin seeks to return and the tens of thousands of confiscated African works that are in France.

It is believed that around 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is located in Europe. The Quai Branly Museum alone houses around 70,000 African objects. A 2018 report commissioned by the French government said that around 46,000 of them should be eligible for repatriation.

This report by the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Benedicte Savoy recommended the full return of all objects that were forcibly taken or allegedly acquired under unfair conditions.

France has returned several other objects to former colonies in Africa and plans to continue to do so. However, proponents of restitution, including Talon, have said the process is too slow and limited in scope.

Several other European museums and governments have also moved to returning works of art to Africa as its institutions grapple with the cultural legacy of colonialism.

The German government announced in April that it would begin returning Benin bronzes, relief sculptures made of copper alloys from the Kingdom of Benin, to Nigeria next year. Continue reading

Reporting by Allegresse Sasse and Aaron Ross; Adaptation by Giles Elgood

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