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France hands back looted artifacts to Benin

November 9, 2021

French forces stole the artifacts from the West African nation amid a bloody colonial takeover. After over a century, the items are finally heading home.

Two large royal statues of the Kingdom of Dahomey, at R: Royal bochio half-man half-shark statue of King Behanzin,  and at L: half-man half-lion of King Glele attributed to Sossa Dede, Benin, Abonney
A total of 26 artifacts are heading back to Benin after 130 yearsImage: Pascal Rossignol/REUTERS

France on Tuesday transferred ownership of 26 treasures that were looted from Benin during colonial times.

Benin President Patrice Talon and Culture Minister Jean-Michel Abimbola traveled to Paris to formally seal the agreement.

The objects, including three totemic statues, jewelry, a scepter and a royal throne, are due to arrive in Benin later this month — around 130 years after they were looted by French forces.

Return of Benin's 'soul'

Talon said he felt "overwhelming emotion" at recovering the treasure.

Benin's president described the objects amounted to "our soul," rather than, "cultural goods" — the term used by France to describe them.

He made the comments while at the presidential palace in the French capital, where France signed over the artifacts to Benin.

 Visitors look at a portable altar asen attributed to Lammandoucelo Aissi family in the Quai Branly museum
The looted artifacts were on display at the Quai Branly museum in Paris, FranceImage: Pascal Rossignol/REUTERS

France's President Emmanuel Macron, who was at the handover, hailed it as "a symbolic, moving and historic moment."

The items are being removed from the Quai Branly museum in Paris.

In Benin, the artifacts will be exhibited at various sites, including a former Portuguese fort in the city of Ouidah, once a slave-trading hub, while awaiting the completion of a museum in Abomey to house them.

Why is France handing over the items now?

African museums have demanded for decades that European former colonial powers restitute stolen cultural artifacts. Experts estimate that 85 to 90% of African cultural artifacts were taken from the continent.

Recently the movement has gained greater traction.

French lawmakers last year passed a bill allowing Paris to return artifacts to both Benin and Senegal, another former French colony in west Africa.

Art treasures wanted back

Nigeria said last month it had agreed with Germany on the return of hundreds of so-called Benin Bronzes.

An advisory committee to the Netherlands' government in 2020 found that the country should return looted art to its former colonies.

More to come?

Talon emphasized that Tuesday's handover was the first step in a large-scale restitution process.

He said he was reserving his enthusiasm until France had returned other key artifacts.

"Beyond this handover, we will continue the work," Macron promised.

kmm/fb (AFP, dpa)