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France Vows to Return Plundered Benin Artifacts by 2021

France will return twenty-six looted cultural artifacts to the Republic of Benin by 2021, according to French cultural minister Franck Riester, who reaffirmed a pledge made last year to permanently restitute colonial-era artworks to Africa following a groundbreaking report on repatriation published by the French art historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese academic Felwine Sarr. “With President Talon, beyond the terms of these restitutions, we discussed the enrichment of cultural cooperation between our 2 countries,” Riester tweeted after a meeting with Beninese president Patrice Talon. “The course is clear and our mobilization total.”

The works, which were mostly pillaged from Benin City in southern Nigeria, in 1892, are currently at Paris’s Musée du Quai Branly Jacques Chirac. The institution houses some seventy thousand artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa in its holdings. Last year, French president Emmanuel Macron vowed to act in support of the recommendations by Savoy and Sarr, who called for the permanent restitution of African art and artifacts that had been acquired through “theft, looting, despoilment, trickery, and forced consent,” and for France to create an inventory of all works that entered French collections during colonial rule in Africa. The pledge brought about two thirds of the ninety thousand pieces of African art acquired before 1960 currently in French museums under scrutiny, but since Macron’s promise to restitute twenty-six objects to Benin last year, progress has been slow. “Things are not moving as fast as we would have liked,” Sarr told the New York Times last month.

Previously, French officials have exploited legislative loopholes to brake the return of African artifacts. When Talon requested that objects be returned back in 2016, the European nation invoked a 1566 law prohibiting the release of inherited objects. “The French government is striving for a middle way that would be a mix of restitution and circulation,” said Sarr. “From a historical standpoint, that’s a retreat.”

Correction: December 20, 2019
An earlier version of this article referred to Benin City in Nigeria as just Benin.