The big debate – Art Restitution

November 14, 2022


Art restitution has been the subject of heated debates in the politics of art in recent times with a major focus on Africa and its former European colonial masters. Many nations saw demands for the restitution of cultural artefacts become reality. Disputes over ownership of these treasures have taken on increased urgency during the past few years, gaining momentum with France’s 2018 report, titled “Toward a New Relational Ethics,” which promised to return 26 objects looted from Benin in the 19th century. With mounting pressure from the public, institutions such as New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art and Berlin’s newly opened Humboldt Forum have also agreed to return Benin Bronzes in their collections. Although the return of these objects is a landmark step in the fight by African countries to recover looted artefacts, there is still a long road ahead, with according to the 2018 report, about 90 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage objects believed to be held in Europe.

It is almost five years since President Emmanuel Macron of France announced in an historic declaration in Burkina Faso his plan to return African cultural heritage objects to the continent which reignited the debate around colonial artefacts. So far France has repatriated 28 African objects since Macron’s 2017 proclamation including a 19th-century sabre to Senegal and 26 items to Benin. Macron hosted Benin’s President Patrice Talon to officially sign an agreement returning the 26 objects originally stolen by French forces from the Palace of Abomey. These items from the kingdom of Dahomey are among 70,000 others in the Quai Branley’s collection that originally came from countries in Africa. The items will now make their way back to Benin where they will eventually be housed in a new museum currently under construction with aid by France which has financed the project to the tune of $40 million in loans and grants.

Stopping short of restitution, King Philippe of Belgium returned a stolen ceremonial mask to the Democratic Republic of Congo on ‘indefinite loan’ while admitting regret for the colonial-era crimes of his country. The repatriation took place during an official ceremony on the grounds of the DRC’s parliament in the capital city of Kinshasa, where the King met with DRC president Felix Tshisekedi. A law that would lay the groundwork for new restitution policies on a case-by-case basis is currently being reviewed by Belgium’s legislature. The monarch reflected on his country’s 75-year-control of Congo, a brutal period of exploitation inaugurated by King Leopold II, Philippe’s grandfather, when he claimed personal and outright ownership of the African region that now constitutes the DRC. Belgian rule was marked by the brutal genocide of as many as 10 million Congolese people between 1880 and 1920.

ceremonial mask
A ceremonial mask handed to President of the Democratic Republic of the Congo Felix Tshisekedi by Belgium’s King Philippe during a ceremony at the National Museum of the Democratic Republic of the Congo in Kinshasa on June 8, 2022. Photo: Arsene Mpiana / AFP via Getty Images.

Another most unlikely artefact has also been returned to the DRC – a tooth that had once belonged to Patrice Lumumba, and is now all that remains of the country’s first democratically-elected prime minister. Months after he first took power upon independence from Belgium in 1960 he was assassinated following a Belgian-supported coup. After being tortured and executed his body was dissolved in acid but a Belgian police officer took this tooth as a memento. Belgium’s prime minister returned that tooth to Lumumba’s family in a ceremony that took place in Brussels.

Just over a year after Germany announced it would repatriate looted Benin bronzes back to Nigeria, the two nations have concluded negotiations on repatriation and have signed a memorandum of understanding before treasures from the Ethnological Museum in Berlin are returned to their proper home. Numerous artefacts will return to Nigeria before the end of this year while some will remain on long-term loan at the Humboldt Forum.

British soldiers stole legions of Benin bronzes during a fiery 1897 punitive raid on the Benin Royal Palace. Since then, the regal bronze and ivory sculptures were traded across museums around the Western world: official counts located 173 Benin bronzes at the Weltmuseum in Vienna; 136 at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, U.K.; and a staggering 928 at the British Museum in London.

The board of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation (SPK), a federal body that oversees 27 museums and cultural organizations in and around Berlin, has agreed to return a number of objects to Cameroon and Namibia. The news is the latest significant restitution from Germany as the country continues to examine its policy toward colonial-era artworks and objects.

While in the United Kingdom, former Prime Minister Liz Truss announced recently that she was not in favour of repatriating the Parthenon Marbles to Greece, a new law in England and Wales will give national museums significantly more power to deaccession works and make decisions on restitution cases. The Charities Act 2022, which is expected to come into force later this year, allows charities—including national museums—to dispose of objects where there is a compelling moral obligation to do so.

This declaration comes as a decades-old movement to repatriate the 2,500-year-old marbles—which were removed from Greece’s Parthenon temple in the early 19th century by the Scottish nobleman Lord Elgin—was gaining a new-found momentum. George Osborne, the former Chancellor and current chairman of the British Museum—where the marbles have lived since 1817—said earlier this year that a “deal is to be done” between the U.K. and Greece.

And so the challenge continues – a long and arduous road indeed…