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Handing back stolen treasures

Handing back stolen treasures

France has decided to return some artefacts from one of its museums which were looted from Benin more than a century ago. Might museums in other western countries have to follow suit?


Nimo Omer: Hi, I’m Nimo and this is the Sensemaker.

One story every day to make sense of the world.

Today, why Emmanuel Macron is returning some stolen treasures. 


“Paris’s Quai Branly museum is displaying a treasure trove of objects of Benin before they are returned to the west African country.” 

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Twenty-six objects – looted by French soldiers in the 19th century – have started their long journey home to Benin, the key-shaped country that invented voodoo.

The artefacts, called the Abomey Treasures, were taken during an expedition against Dahomey, a kingdom located in modern-day Benin.

They include a throne, a half-man half-shark statue of King Béhanzin and doors taken from the palace of King Glélé.

France’s culture minister was keen to stress that the return of the artefacts won’t create a legal precedent, but across Europe something is happening.

The same day the French president Emmanuel Macron formally handed over the treasures, a college at Cambridge University in England returned a bronze cockerel statue, one of the Benin bronzes, to Nigeria.

“In the days when the British empire stretched around the world it found its way to a Cambridge University college, a college which has decided to give it back.”

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It had been given to Jesus College, the old college of the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, by the father of a student at the start of the 20th century.

“The cockerel was looted at the end of the 19th century when British troops carried out a raid in what was then the kingdom of Benin, home of the Edo people. It is just one of thousands of royal treasures which were taken and it is the first to be formally returned.”

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And that’s not everything. A 4,250-year-old gold vase was returned to Turkey after being loaned to London’s V&A Museum. And back in France, a private collector handed a Mayan artefact back to Guatemala.

All in a little over a week.

So why did Macron return the Abomey Treasures?

And are we seeing the floodgates open on the restitution of stolen objects?

“You speak to me as if France was just a colonial power, but I do not want to take care of electricity problems in the universities of Burkino Faso.”

Emmanuel Macron 2017 speech

When Emmanuel Macron visited Africa at the end of 2017, a few months after being elected as France’s youngest president, he was keen to repair his country’s difficult relationship with many African nations.

“Within five years. I want the conditions for the temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa.”

Emmanuel Macron 2017 speech

To Emmanuel Macron’s credit he quickly got the ball rolling. He commissioned two academics, a French art historian and a Senegalese writer, to look at the status of African objects in France museums.

Their report found 90 per cent of Africa’s cultural heritage wasn’t on the continent and recommended any objects taken by force should be handed back if their countries of origin asked for them.

The countries that have taken them up on that include Benin, Senegal, Madagascar, the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia, Mali and Chad.

In 2019 France gave a historical sword back to Senegal, and finally it is giving back the Abomey Treasures to Benin.

So why now?

“The restitution of works taken by French forces during the colonial era is part of a drive by the French President, Emmanuel Macron, to improve his country’s image in Africa especially among young people.”

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At a time when countries like China and Russia are trying to cultivate soft power in Africa, there’s clearly a diplomatic slant to Emmanuel Macron championing the return of the Abomey Treasures.

It’s an attempt to maintain good relations with African nations while he still has troops on the ground in places like the Sahel region, which stretches all the way from Sudan to Senegal.

“All young people need to appropriate their country’s history to build their future better, to see the power of their history, and at times the mysterious. And there was no reason why African youth should be condemned to be denied access to their heritage.”

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But there’s some domestic thinking, too.

Emmanuel Macron is six months away from a re-election campaign, and a lot of voters on the left have become disillusioned with him.

With socialist parties struggling to unite, Emmanuel Macron’s hoping gestures like this might help get some of them back on board.

Given there was a record low turnout in June’s regional elections, getting them to the ballot box is going to be really important.

The thing is, Benin isn’t really that satisfied with the handover, calling the return of the Abomey Treasures just “small steps”.

So is this the start of something bigger?

The French culture minister was keen to stress that the return of the artefacts won’t create a legal precedent – and you can see why.

French museums have at least 90,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa, and museums across Europe have many more.

The culture minister has said that the law passed to pave the way for the return of the Abomey treasures was specific to those artefacts and didn’t create any general right to restitution.

And whether objects should be returned is not always a black and white issue. Sometimes experts simply don’t know whether a given artefact was taken without consent. 

Still, the French handover will have cultural institutions around the world looking over their shoulders. Take the British Museum: it has in its possession the famous Benin Bronzes that were looted from modern-day Nigeria.

And it won’t just feel pressure from France. Germany has agreed to start returning its Benin Bronzes, Aberdeen University has handed back one it bought at an auction in 1957, and there’s that Cambridge college as well. 

It’s too early to say that the floodgates are opening, particularly when restitution is piecemeal and not happening in great numbers.

But the water level is definitely rising.

Today’s story was written and produced by Xavier Greenwood.