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  • The Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris is home to nearly 60,000 pieces of colonial-era African artwork.

    The Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris is home to nearly 60,000 pieces of colonial-era African artwork. | Photo: Reuters

Published 28 November 2018

Some 5,000 artifacts stolen from the West African nation of Benin by French troops in the late 19 century, a study said.

The art director of France’s largest African art collection is proposing universally shared custody of the coveted artifacts rather than an outright return to their countries of origin.

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The Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac museum in Paris is home to nearly 60,000 pieces of colonial-era African artwork, museum director and connoisseur, Stephan Martin, said.

Despite a presidentially-commissioned report by French and Senegalese specialists urging the repatriation of the controversial collection, Martin says returning the coveted artwork would be a disservice to museums around the world.

Though many pieces are tainted with the “impurity of colonial crime,” the majority of artifacts were freely given by administrators, doctors, soldiers, and scientific expeditions and received, as in the case of Dr. Pierre Harter, by African families in the region n gratitude for their services- and these pieces could be put in jeopardy by a forced repatriation.

"It would be a huge innovation in French law to give a foreign state parity to determine what was or wasn't part of its heritage," Martin said.

The discussion was first initiated after the study reported some 5,000 artifacts stolen from the West African nation of Benin by French troops in the late 19 century.

Benin government officials requested the repatriation of these, as study authors Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French historian Benedicte Savoy, pointed out, they were never intended for long-term loan. Macron was quick to respond, promising the immediate return of 26 cultural pieces, however, new legislation will be required to secure the exchange.

Martin said he didn’t believe the Emmanuel Macron administration would support the report’s recommendations and authorize a large-scale return of artifacts.

"The way I read it, they have closed the door on the report by insisting that museums, and above all universal museums, are an important part of our common cultural heritage," he said.

The discussion has triggered a call for the repatriation of other similar artifacts to governments across the continent.

Nations such as Ethiopia and Greece reject, “the idea of loans, saying they should not have to borrow back their own stolen property.”

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