France returns colonial looted art to Benin
Twenty-six artworks from the former Kingdom of Dahomey are returned to Benin. They were previously on show at the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris.
A special exhibition in Paris
Nearly 130 years after they were added to France's collection, the artworks were returned in 2021 to Benin, in West Africa. Before their restitution, the works from the former Kingdom of Dahomey (located within present-day Benin) were on display in a special exhibition in Paris.
A feared kingdom
Dahomey, which existed from the 17th to the end of 19th century, was one of the most powerful African kingdoms. Behanzin (pictured) is considered its last independent ruler, coming to power through traditional structures. He led the national resistance against French troops when they invaded the kingdom in 1890. Following France's victory four years later, Behanzin fled into exile with his family.
The great royal statues
In 1892, while French troops were conquering the country, various artifacts — including these three royal statues — were stolen from the royal palace in Abomey and brought to France. They were first exhibited at the Musee du Trocadero before moving in 2006 to the Musee du Quai Branly. The construction of the controversial museum initiated by former President Jacques Chirac cost over €235 million.
Plans for the works in Benin
In Benin, the artworks will first be displayed at the governor's house in the coastal city of Ouidah, located next to the Museum of History (photo). They will then move on to the former royal city of Abomey, where an entirely new museum will be built. Benin, which became independent in 1960, wrote to the French government in 2016 demanding the return of the works.
A promise kept
In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron had pledged to facilitate a law on the restitution of looted art. Until then, cultural objects kept by France were subject to a special legal framework: As public property, they were inalienable, regardless of the circumstances of acquisition. The law allowing the transfer of collections was passed in 2020.
The sword of El Hadj Omar
In addition to the restitution of the Beninese artworks, France also returned in 2019 a valuable sword, which belonged to the general and scholar El Hadj Omar, to what is now Senegal. It was the first restitution made by France to one of its former colonies. In this photo, Senegal's President Macky Sall (right) accepts the sword.
In addition to the royal statues, other royal regalia such as scepters and portable altars will be restituted to Benin. This richly decorated royal chair will also be returned to West Africa. In addition to Benin, six other African states — Senegal, Mali, Chad, Côte d'Ivoire, Ethiopia and Madagascar — have submitted restitution claims to France.
It is estimated that Europe detains 90% of Africa's material cultural heritage. The collections of the Musee du Quai Branly in Paris alone contain some 70,000 works of art from sub-Saharan Africa. More than half were acquired during the French colonial period. Investigations are currently underway to determine if they were unjustly obtained.
Handover planned for mid-November
Other countries in Europe have also committed to returning art from colonial contexts to their countries of origin. Germany, for example, wants to return the so-called Benin bronzes to Nigeria starting in 2022. In France, President Macron is signing the official handover documents to Benin on November 9. The artworks are expected to arrive there a few days later.