129-year journey nears end as France returns Benin treasures

The 19th century Throne of King Ghezo, left, and Throne of King Glele, from Benin, are pictured at the Quai Branly–Jacques Chirac museum, Monday, October 25, 2021, in Paris.  French army in the 19th century from Western Africa. /AP

In a move with potential ramifications for other European museums, France is displaying 26 looted colonial-era artifacts for one last time before returning them to Benin, a decision authorities in the West African country described as “historic.”

The wooden anthropomorphic statues, royal thrones and sacred altars were pilfered by the French army 129 years ago. 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.

Calixte Biah, the curator of the Museum of History of Ouidah, Benin, where the artifacts will first be exhibited, said the occasion was historic.

“It’s been more than one century that they have been removed from their historical context. And when you look at the quality of each of these artifacts altogether, you realize that … there were great artists,” he told The Associated Press.

Benin is founding a new museum in Abomey, partly funded by the French government, that will ultimately house the works.

President Emmanuel Macron suggested that France now needed to right the wrongs of the past, making a landmark 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 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.

“We see 26 artifacts. There are others, no? So I wouldn’t say that we are ending a process. I’d say we are at the beginning of a process,” Biah said.

“I think it would be decent that other countries which hold African artifacts take the same path as France,” he added.

Earlier this year, Germany started a similar move. The decision was taken that German museums should work on a restitution plan to return to Nigeria artifacts known as the Benin Bronzes next year. These were looted from the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin, in what is now southern Nigeria, by a British colonial expedition in 1897.

Yet critics of such moves, including London’s British Museum, in a decades-long tug-of-war with the Greek government over restitution of the Elgin, or Parthenon, Marbles — argue that it will open the floodgates to emptying Western museums of their collections. Many are made up of objects acquired during colonial times.

The British Museum said Monday it is working on a collaboration with Nigeria, linked to the construction of a new museum in the West African country, which will allow to “reunite Benin artworks from international collections.”

French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot tried to assuage jitters among European museums, emphasizing that this initiative “will not create a legal precedent.”

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