Powered by IR Society at NYU

IR Insider is a production of NYU's International Relations Society. Our goal is to explain and discuss issues in IR in an engaging and thought-provoking fashion. We are written by students, for students, about issues students care about. 

26 Artifacts Stolen from Benin Are to Be Returned by France

French President Emmanuel Macron recently demanded the return of 26 artifacts that were stolen by the colonial power in 1894 from the kingdom of Behanzin in Benin.

A report commissioned by the French government recommended the return of the artifacts to their country of origin. According to CNN,

“French collections now house at least 90,000 pieces originating from sub-Saharan Africa… The report suggested a three-phased approach. The first, the return of ‘several symbolic pieces whose return has been requested for a long time by various African nations.’ Then, an international inventory of stolen pieces. And the final phase would include African nations submitting claims of restitution.”

According to the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), 90% of Africa’s cultural heritage is housed outside of Africa, located mostly in museums. For instance, 70,000 Sub-Saharan pieces are located in the Paris Quai Branly museum. In a trip to Burkina Faso, Macron stated, “African heritage can’t just be in European private collections and museums.”

The Victoria and Albert Museum houses numerous artifacts from the Maqdala battle from Ethiopia. Photo:  Obatala .

The Victoria and Albert Museum houses numerous artifacts from the Maqdala battle from Ethiopia. Photo: Obatala.

Many African countries have appealed to Western museums to return items taken from them, resulting in moderate success. Ethiopia has been appealing to Britain to return the artifacts taken from the 1868 battle of Maqdala. Their appeal resurfaced after the Victoria and Albert Museum ”Maqdala 1868” exhibition opened in April 2018. The Victoria and Albert Museum offered to return the items to Ethiopia in a long-term loan; however, Ephrem Amare, the Ethiopian National Museum director stated, “It is clearly known where these treasures came from and whom they belong to. Our main demand has never been to borrow them. Ethiopia’s demand has always been the restoration of those illegally looted treasures. Not to borrow them.”

The British Museum in London has also offered to loan heritage items back to their origin country. The museum houses a valuable collection of about 700 Benin bronzes from the royal kingdom of Benin located in present-day Nigeria. According to BBC, “the returns are contingent on the timely completion of a new Royal Museum, adjacent to the Royal Palace that once housed many of the bronzes.”

Some western museums have long argued that many museums on the continent of Africa do not have adequate facilities to store their own heritage items or the technical know-how.  As part of the deal with the British Museum and the museum in Benin, “The museums in attendance have all agreed to lend artifacts to the Benin Royal Museum on a rotating basis, to provide advice as requested on building and exhibition design, and to cooperate with the Nigerian partners in developing training, funding, and a legal framework for the display in a new planned museum."

The repatriation of artifacts is a complex process that requires countries to be signatories to certain treaties concerning cultural heritage. Examples include the 1970 convention on the means of prohibiting and preventing the illicit import, export, and transfer of ownership of cultural property as well as the 1995 UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects. Examples of successful artifacts returned to African countries recently, with the help of UNESCO, include two wooden statues returned to Kenya in 2007 from the United States and the return of 262 archeological items to Burkina Faso from France.