France returns 26 artworks to Benin as report urges restitution

DAKAR/PARIS (Reuters) - France will return 26 works of art to Benin, Emmanuel Macron’s office said on Friday, as the French president took delivery of a report recommending the widespread return of cultural artefacts removed from Africa during the colonial era.

The report by Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Benedicte Savoy marks a potential milestone in the fight by African countries to recover works pillaged by Western explorers and colonisers.

Macron became the first Western leader to initiate a comprehensive review of colonial loot after telling Burkinabe students last year that “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums”.

Some 90 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage is now believed to be in Europe. The Quai Branly Museum in Paris alone holds some 70,000 African objects, as does London’s British Museum, Savoy told Reuters earlier this year.

Western museums have traditionally resisted appeals to return objects to their countries of origin, which they often argue lack the necessary resources to care for the works.

Earlier this week, the governor of Chile’s Easter Island led a delegation to the British Museum to request the return of a prized sculpture.

The French report calls for legislation to ease the return of artefacts from museum collections, according to newspaper reports. It identified around 46,000 objects at the Musee du Quai Branly museum in Paris that would qualify for repatriation.

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“We have sensed a real desire by the executive to act,” Sarr told daily Liberation. “I was sceptical at the beginning. I am now convinced this is not just a publicity stunt.”

The 26 artefacts to returned to Benin from Quai Branly were seized in 1892 as the spoils of war. They are among some 5,000 works requested by the West African country.

Several European museums agreed last month to lend works to a new museum in Benin City, Nigeria. British soldiers seized thousands of metal castings, including the iconic Benin Bronzes, from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897.

But other governments, such as Ethiopia and Greece, have rejected the idea of loans, saying they should not have to borrow back their own stolen property.

Editing by Laurence Frost and Toby Chopra