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Experts Urge France to Permanently Restitute Looted African Art

A new 108-page report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron recommends the permanent restitution of African art and artifacts acquired by the state through “theft, looting, despoilment, trickery, and forced consent.” During a three-day trip to Africa last year Macron declared the return of colonial-era art a “top priority” for the government. He then appointed Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy to advise on the process.

According to a preview obtained by Le Point, the report, which will be released in full on Friday, calls for France to create an inventory of all works originating from colonialism in Africa, bringing about two thirds of the ninety thousand pieces of African art acquired before 1960 currently in French museums under scrutiny. African governments would then select which items they wish to have returned; if France objects, it would have to prove that the pieces in dispute had been acquired legitimately.

The report advises the president to put aside “political prudence and museum anxiety” and immediately return spoils of war and colonial theft and violence to Mali, Benin, Nigeria, Senegal, Ethiopia, and Cameroon. The first phase of the restitution will be completed in 2019 if Macron moves forward with the plan. Sarr and Savoy consulted around 150 specialists throughout France and the continent for their report, which could have far-reaching implications for French and international museums.

Sarr and Savoy’s assessment stands in stark contrast to the moderate recommendations offered by London’s British Museum and the Benin Dialogue Group, which only proposed to return pieces through longterm loan agreements. Savoy and Sarr view such “temporary restitutions” as “transitory solutions” that should be in place only “until legal mechanisms are found to allow the final and unconditional return of heritage objects to the African continent,” reports the Art Newspaper

“Behind the mask of beauty, the question of restitution invites us to go right to the heart of a system of appropriation and alienation, the colonial system, of which some European museums are today, in their own right, public archives,” Sarr and Savoy write.