Europe and burden of looted African artefacts: Reparation or repatriation?

June 23, 2019

16th-century bronze plaque from Benin, West Africa, held at the British Museum, London. Courtesy the Trustees of the British Museum

More than a century after they were looted, the decades-old campaign for European museums to return African art — particularly Benin bronzes — is finally looking like a real possibility.

The realisation gnaws European museums, which are under mounting pressure to return the irreplaceable artefacts plundered during colonial times.

On June 25, 2019, the second of two debates on post-colonial legacies will hold at German Historical Institute London (GHIL). Titled, From Collected To Contested: The Future Of Museums After The Repatriation Debate, the issue of stolen artefacts will dominate discussions. The panel will look at what repatriation portends for European museums, whether repatriation naturally entail ‘decolonising the museum’ or it might even prevent museums from doing just that. It will discuss what decolonisation in the museum actually means.

On March 7, 2019, the Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen (NMVW), which comprises the Amsterdam Tropenmuseum, Museum Volkenkunde, Leiden and the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal, issued a set of rules entitled, Return of Cultural Objects: Principles and Process Nationaal Museum van Wereldculturen.

These rules are intended to govern procedure by which requests for return of objects can be submitted to the NMVW.

The rules, however, apply only to the three museums in the NMVW and not to the Rijksmuseum, which also has objects with disputed ownership.

Eric Brassem, a journalist with Trouw, an influential paper in the Netherlands, told The Guardian, “Nigeria should take advantage of these guidelines to get back some of these looted artworks.”

Brassem continued, “I’m surprised that Nigeria has not shown much interest in these guidelines.”

He mentioned Section 4, which specifies the criteria under which objects can be claimed, providing three categories: legality, involuntary separation and heritage value. Claims may fall under one or more of these categories. Claimant must, however, show that the object was ‘collected/acquired in contravention of the standards of legality at the time’.

This may include proof that the object was ‘acquired from a possessor who acted in contravention of standards of legality at that time and who did not have legal right of ownership or a possessor who since acquisition has engaged in illegal practices relating to the ownership’ of the object.

Claimants can also establish they were involuntarily separated from the cultural object. The claimant must establish one of the following grounds:

The object was acquired without the consent of the owners or was acquired under conditions of duress that amounts to forced sale or that the object was acquired from a person who was not culturally authorised to dispose of the object.

A claimant may also show that the object is of such a cultural value, heritage or religious, to the communities that its continued retention in the collection of NMVW can be tested in relation to analogous standards articulated by the Heritage Act (Erfgoedwet) 2016 for Dutch National Heritage and Culture.

This may include objects whose sacred purpose makes them unsuited to public display and continued scientific research and that the relative national historical significance outside the Netherlands or influence on continuous cultural well being outside the Netherlands outweighs all benefits of national retention in the Netherlands.

Once the claim is assessed as falling within the scope of article 4, it will be evaluated through detailed provenance research.

Claims must include, documents of ownership and history of possession, connection between claimant and the claimed object, cultural and national context and information on any other potential claimants.

Brassem noted that the artefacts “do not have any spiritual meaning to Europeans apart from being mere artworks” as they “do to Africans,” so Nigeria should come out to take advantage of these guidelines.

Also, in March, the culture ministers of Germany’s 16 states agreed to create conditions for the repatriation of artefacts in public collections that were taken “in ways that are legally or morally unjustifiable today” from former colonies, describing their return as “an ethical and moral duty.”

German ministers agreed to work with museums and institutions to develop repatriation procedures with “the necessary urgency and sensitivity,” and promised a dialogue with representatives from source countries.

The ministers also agreed on the need to inventarise and publish details of items in ethnological collections and to prioritise the return of human remains. They proposed establishing a central help desk to provide information on colonial-era heritage and called on all institutions in possession of such items to conduct provenance research.

Museums in Germany not only acquired items expropriated from the German colonies in Africa, but also — via purchases and gifts — artefacts looted from territories under the rule of other European nations.

Berlin’s Ethnological Museum, for instance, has the second-biggest collection of bronzes looted from Benin by British troops after the British Museum.

On March 15, 2019, Germany also issued Guidelines on Dealing with Collections from Colonial Contexts.

Germany is already set for the opening of Humboldt Forum in the reconstructed royal palace in the centre of Berlin. The Humboldt Forum is to house Berlin’s ethnological collections — including, at least 50,000 artefacts removed from Africa during the colonial era. The 600 million Euros project will be opened in November.

The German government this year allocated €1.9 million to provenance research for artefacts that entered museum collections during the colonial era, with the funds to be administered by the Magdeburg-based German Lost Art Foundation.

It also appointed an eight-member committee including, Bénédicte Savoy, the co-writer of a report urging French museums to repatriate works taken without consent from African countries, to select grant recipients on the basis of applications from German museums.

The German government will return a 15th-century Portuguese stone cross that has been in its possession since the colonial era, back to its original home in Namibia.

The cross was a navigation landmark placed on the coastline of present-day Namibia in 1496, before it was taken in the late 17th century under German colonial rule.

Earlier in the year, the country returned the skulls of 30 Namibian genocide victims from the mass killings of the Herero and Nama people.

Campaign For Restitution Of Looted Art
The campaign for the restitution of Benin bronzes has been on since Nigeria’s independence in 1960, with the Nigerian authorities mounting pressure on Western governments, museums, individuals and institutions across the world holding these treasured arts to return them to their original home.

The Nigerian government had before the Second World Black and African Festival Arts and Culture (FESTAC) held in 1977 pleaded with the British authorities for the return of the Idia mask to be used as the insignia of the Pan-African cultural festival (and to be returned after use) but they refused. First Nigeria had to pay 2 million pounds as collateral. The British Museum then decided that the mask was too fragile to transport. This prompted the Federal Government to request for a replica of the mask that was commissioned by Omo n’Oba n’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Akenzua II and was crafted by Erhabor Emokpae.

Two of the famous Benin bronzes, the Ahianwen-Oro artwork, were returned to their homeland in 2014 by the British citizen, Dr. Mark Walker, leading to calls for repatriation of more artefacts. Walker had inherited the artwork from his great-grandfather, who took part in the pillaging of Benin.

The campaign for reparation, restitution and repatriation of African artefacts has become more focused with the emergence of a new generation of African leaders, historians and art collectors with more information about Africa’s artistic and cultural heritage.

Only on International Museum Day, May 18, 2019, the International Council of African Museums (AFRICOM) celebrated the restitution of African heritage. The event, which was themed, Museums as Cultural Hubs — The Future of Tradition, saw the council voice its support for the restitution of museum collections to Africa this year and in years to come.

On the occasion, AFRICOM formally registered its support for French President Emmanuel Macron’s declaration in Ouagadougou (November 2017) and recommendations to return African heritage and museum collections in the restitution report by the Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr and French art historian Benedicte de Savoy (2018).

AFRICOM will discuss Heritage Restitution as the Future of Tradition at the ICOM General Conference in Kyoto, Japan on September 3, 2019.

During the opening of Museum of Black Civilizations last year, the Senegalese government urged Macron to return all of its looted art.

French authorities had in 2017 agreed to return back 26 mainly royal artworks carted away by its troops during a battle in 1892 from Palaces in Abomey (former capital of the kingdom of Dahomey) to Paris.

Though Macron proposed gathering European and African partners in the French capital early this 2019 to work out a plan for an exchange policy for the African objects, the summit has not held.

One of Africa’s stolen artefacts that were shipped off African shores through dubious means.

France would be required to deliver to each African country an inventory of all works originating from their territory under the rule of “colonial violence”. Through bilateral commissions, African governments would then select the items they wish to have returned. If France objects, it would have to prove that the pieces in question were legitimately acquired.

France holds far fewer works pillaged during punitive military expeditions in Africa than Britain or Germany. The report urged France to sign the Unidroit convention, a 1995 international treaty designed to enable restitutions from private collectors and dealers.

Until now, the French law refused to cede property owned by the government, even if that property was acquired through looting. Sarr and Savoy, in their report, called for a change to these ‘heritage laws’ so that the “the criteria of consent can be invoked” on a case-by-case basis.

Nevertheless, Britain’s long-standing policy is not to cease ownership over its looted treasures. No doubt, the country is the biggest culprit of the shameful plunder of Africa’s cultural treasures, with its museums, as many have alleged, is a ‘trove of stolen works’ of art.

Savoy and Sarr, in their 108-page study, argued that the complete transfer of property back to Africa and not the long-term loan of objects to African museums should be the general rule for works taken in the colonial period unless it could be proven that these objects were acquired “legitimately”.

While many, particularly in Africa, have welcomed the report, European art dealers are skeptical about its intent and purpose. Some say repatriation could leave France’s museums nearly empty and question just who the art should be returned to since many of these kingdoms no longer exist.

Others fear collectors may even start moving the art out of France, fearing state seizure. Simon Njami, the editor of the Paris-based art journal, Revue Noire, cynically called the move “a foolish promise” that would never materialise beyond rhetoric.

There are about 90,000 African artworks in French museums, most of them housed in the Quai Branly museum, an ethnographic museum that also boasts a large collection of Asian art. Former president Jacques Chirac, an avid collector of African and Asian art, created it.

However, the report offered a striking alternative vision to projects set up by various European museums like the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG) led by the British Museum in London, which has opted for loan rather than repatriation.

This spring (April/May), Ethiopia’s minister for Culture discussed with the British
Museum the potential return of 11 tabots currently held at the museum. The verdict was no return, but loan.

The tabots had been taken during a notorious expedition by British imperial forces at Maqdala against the Abyssinian Empire in East Africa (current-day Ethiopia).

These, along with Abyssinian regalia and manuscripts, were brought back to Britain as war loot and entered a number of major British institutions.

Recently, a museum spokesperson relayed that Fischer was “going to report to the trustees, and the suggestion of a long-term loan of the tabots may be discussed.”

While it is clear that Nigeria has finally accepted the loan option mooted in BDG’s summit in Cambridge, a move seen as highly controversial, Savoy and Sarr in their report warned that such loans could be used as a pretext to refuse the permanent transfer of property.

On October 19, 2018, at the National Museum of World Cultures, the Netherlands, the BDG — a multi-lateral collaborative working group that brings together museum representatives from Austria, Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, and the United Kingdom with key representatives from Nigeria — agreed on a number of proposals towards the establishment of a new museum in Benin City (Benin Royal Museum) where a permanent display of Benin art works from European and Nigerian museums will be shown.

All the listed European and Nigerian partners will contribute from their collections on a rotating basis.

The group equally established a steering committee comprising representatives from European museums, the National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM), Edo State government and the Royal Court of Benin. This committee is formed to drive forward the decisions made in Leiden by the BDG.

The group will meet again in Benin City, this year, and in 2020 at the British Museum, London, then in 2021 at the Museum am Rothenbaum, Kulturen und Künste der Welt (MARKK) in Hamburg.

Edo State governor, Godwin Obaseki, who is working in collaboration with the Benin monarch to retrieve the stolen bronzes, while presenting the 2019 appropriation bill before a session of the House of Assembly said his administration planned to construct a N500 million Benin Royal Museum to hold the artefacts when returned.

Governor Obaseki said: “To fulfil our commitment towards making Edo the culture capital of West Africa, we have earmarked N500 million in 2019 proposed Budget, to commence the development and construction of the Benin Royal Museum. This will be done in collaboration with the palace of His Royal Majesty, Omo N’Oba N’Edo Uku Akpolokpolo, Oba Ewuare II, Ogidigan.”

Brassem, like every European, is worried that the conditions of museum in the continent will affect early return of these works. European museums had at various times argued that keeping the artefacts was best for the preservation of the more than a 100 years old loot, as there were no safe place in Africa to hold them especially Nigeria, which they allege is incapable to receive and keep the artworks due to corruption and unprofessional standards of museums management that may see the treasures get into wrong hands.

Richard Lander Society, an organisation that campaigns for the return of the looted Benin artworks, further buttressed the argument.

According to the society, the British Museum has provided a secure environment for over a century and it is the actual security of these bronzes in Nigeria, which has been the main reason for not returning them.

Aside from concerns that once these artefacts go back as a loan, they will not be handed back to western museums, wariness has been expressed about the safety of these items once they get back. There are fears that returning the pieces to poorly resourced African museums could expose them to poor maintenance or even ending up on a black market, where they could fetch millions of dollars.

Given Nigeria’s general lack of a maintenance culture, the fear is that the artworks may not be properly cared for once returned. Indeed, Nigeria’s few existing public museums are largely underfunded and derelict. The museums are also starved of mass interest and local foot traffic — a problem that’s likely to endure, as history hasn’t been a prioritised subject in Nigeria’s school curriculum. As such, there’s a disconnection between the present generation and objects of the past. The looted artefacts must be returned to their countries of origin as several UNESCO and United Nations resolutions have demanded since 1972.

Memorial of a king. Sculpture Welt Museum Wien

For the Sarr and Savoy report, concerns over the conditions of preservation and display of the works once back in Africa, often cited by European museums as a justification for keeping looted works, are not a valid reason for refusing restitutions. “There should be no conditions attached to the restitutions,” it noted.

Whether these artworks are returned or not, the issue of restitution of artworks looted by Europeans is a moral burden that needs attention.

“There are more than 500 museums on the continent, around 50 in countries like Nigeria or South Africa. Benin is building three museums and restoring another one. There is some condescension in this request for facilities on the continent.”

Aside from Nigeria, Egypt has equally been consistent in their campaign to recover looted artefacts. Last week, Egypt began a process to halt the auction of a 3,000-year-old stone sculpture of the famed boy pharaoh Tutankhamun at Christie’s in London, while the auction house said its sale was legal.

The statue — a brown quartzite head depicting King Tut — is scheduled to be auctioned off in July, and could generate more than $5 million, according to Christie’s.

In a statement issued in Cairo, the Egyptian foreign ministry said that it had demanded the auction house provide documents proving the statue’s ownership, and that it reached out to British authorities and the U.N. culture and education agency “to stop the sale procedures” for it and other Egyptian objects included in the lot.

It added that Egypt has the right to the statue based on its current and previous laws. According to a 1983 law regulating the ownership of antiquities, any ancient artefacts found in the country are considered state property,

“with the exception of antiquities whose ownership or possession was already established at the time this law came into effect.”

In the past two years thousands of artefacts smuggled or taken out of Egypt illegally have been repatriated. In January, an Egyptian cartouche of King Amenhotep I, was returned after being put up for auction in London.

Egypt has also been pushing to get back the Rosetta Stone, the 2,200-year-old slab of black basalt with a hieroglyphic, demotic and Greek inscription that was the linguistic key to deciphering Egyptian hieroglyphics.

The stone was shipped out of the North African country in 1799 during French colonial rule and is now in possession of the British Museum. It’s unclear how it ended in the hands of the British, but what is certain is that there was no consent from the Egyptians.

Egypt has been consistently campaigning for Germany to return the statue of Queen Nefertiti. The Germans took the 3,400-year-old bust of the great queen in 1913 using fraudulent documents. The country reportedly considered returning the statue in 1935, but Hitler decided against it.


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