France returns 26 plundered artifacts and works of art to Benin

Twenty-six works of art seized by French colonial soldiers in 1892 returned to Benin on Wednesday, a landmark in the long struggle of African countries to recover looted artifacts.

The works, which include the doors of the Palace of Abomey, royal thrones and warrior dance sticks, were formally welcomed back to Benin at a ceremony led by President Patrice Talon.

Talon received the works from the French government in Paris on Tuesday.

“This return is a testimony of what we have been, a testimony that we existed before, a testimony of what we have known,” Talon said in front of an audience that included representatives of Benin’s royal families.

The artifacts will initially be housed in a museum in the city of Ouidah before being transferred to a new museum being built in Abomey, the site of the Royal Palaces of the Kingdom of Dahomey.

The restitution is the largest France has made into a former colony, but it represents only a fraction of the 5,000 works whose return Benin seeks, and the tens of thousands of seized African works stored in France.

About 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is now believed to be in Europe. The Quai Branly Museum alone houses about 70,000 African artifacts. A 2018 report commissioned by the French government said about 46,000 of them should qualify for repatriation.

This report, by the Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and the French art historian Benedicte Savoy, recommended full repayment of all objects taken by force or presumed to be acquired under unequal conditions.

France has returned several other items to former colonies in Africa and says they plan to continue doing so. But advocates for recovery, including Talon, have said the process has been too slow and limited in scope.

Several other European museums and governments have also moved to return works of art to Africa at a time when its institutions are struggling with the cultural heritage of colonialism.

The German government announced in April that it intends to begin returning Benin Bronzes, copper alloy relief sculptures from the Kingdom of Benin, to Nigeria next year.

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