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African Officials Respond to France’s Restitution Report

African Officials Respond to France’s Restitution Report


Initial responses from African officials to a report issued last week by France on the return of looted treasures from the continent reveal the path to restitution will be a thorny one.

The report, commissioned by President Emmanuel Macron of France, recommended that all objects removed without consent from Africa and sent to France be permanently returned if the countries of origin ask for them.

The first African official to react to the report, which has been met with trepidation by some museum directors in Europe, was Senegal’s culture minister, Abdou Latif Coulibaly. Speaking at a news conference on Tuesday, Mr. Coulibaly called for the return of all Senegalese artwork held in French museums and institutions.

“We are ready to find solutions with France,” Mr. Coulibaly said. “But if 10,000 pieces are identified in the collections, we are asking for all 10,000.”

Senegal was one of the African countries highlighted in the report, which was written by two academics, Bénédicte Savoy of France and Felwine Sarr of Senegal. In preparing the report, the two traveled to Senegal, as well as to Benin, Mali and Cameroon, to meet with government officials, museum directors and art specialists.

Mr. Coulibaly’s reaction, while not a formal claim, runs counter to the report’s assurance that its recommendations would not see the widespread removal of all African objects from France’s museums.

“There is no question, either for us or for our African counterparts, of emptying French or European museums to fill up African ones,” Ms. Savoy, an art historian and professor at the Technical University of Berlin and a professor at the Collège de France, said in a previous interview with The Times.

Rather, the aim of the recommendations is to achieve “a rebalancing of the geography of African heritage in the world, which is currently extremely imbalanced, as European museums have almost everything, and African museums have almost nothing,” Ms. Savoy said.

Alexander Herman, assistant director of the Institute of Art and Law, an educational organization in Britain, said the practicalities of implementing the return of all Senegalese objects would be challenging.

“France and Senegal would have to enter into a bilateral agreement, out of which a commission would be established to determine, on a case-by-case basis, which Senegalese artifacts should be returned,” he said in an interview on Friday.

The report noted that artifacts acquired through documented transactions could be retained by French museums. “Not everything would return to Senegal, even if the rather ambitious terms of the report are followed,” Mr. Herman said.

The response from the Ivory Coast was more in line with the report’s position. On Wednesday, a government spokesman, Sidi Touré, said the country had identified a number of objects to be returned.

“Ivory Coast has drawn up a list of about a hundred masterpieces,” Mr. Touré said in a statement. He added that specifics regarding the requested artifacts would be sent to French officials appointed to handle restitution requests.

Mr. Touré said the returned objects would go to the national museum of Ivory Coast in Abidjan, which “is able to recover and accommodate these different works when they are back.”

The item at the top of Mr. Touré’s list is a ceremonial drum from the people of the Abidjan region, which is currently housed in the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.

France holds at least 90,000 sub-Saharan artifacts, of which 70,000 are in the Quai Branly Museum. The report estimated that up to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is held by institutions outside of Africa.

After the publication of the restitution recommendations, Mr. Macron, who has been criticized for distancing himself from the report, announced that the Quai Branly Museum would return 26 objects to Benin that were looted by French colonial forces in 1892.



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