France looted treasures from West Africa 130 years ago. Now 26 prized artifacts are going back to Benin.

french flag at arc de triomphe during bastille day
·3 min read

Twenty-six looted colonial-era artifacts are to be displayed in a French museum one final time before they are returned home to Benin, in what officials in the West African country have said is a "historic milestone."

The items, which include 19th century thrones, sacred altars and royal statues, were plundered by the French army amid the sacking of Abomey Palace in 1892 and have been held at the Musée du quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris since 2003.

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The collection, widely referred to as the "Abomey Treasures," will be presented to the public from today until Sunday as part of an event seeking to celebrate the arts, cultures and traditions of Benin, a news release issued by the museum last month said.

The artifacts will then be handed back to Benin where they will eventually go on display at a new museum in the city of Abomey, which the French government has helped to fund.

Calixte Biah, curator of the Museum of History of Ouidah in Benin, where the collection will first be displayed called on other countries to follow France's lead, according to the Associated Press.

"I think it would be decent that other countries which hold African artifacts take the same path as France," he said, expressing hope that the return of the objects would spark other cultural institutions to reevaluate collections of colonial-era artifacts.

"We see 26 artifacts. There are others, no?" he said. "I'd say we are at the beginning of a process."

At least 90,000 artifacts from sub-Saharan Africa are held across institutions in France, according to a 2018 report commissioned by the French government - the majority of which can be found at the Musée de Quai Branly.

Earlier this year, Germany became the first country to announce plans to send hundreds of pieces back to Nigeria, a move which also stirred debate over whether other countries should do the same.

German officials said the decision stemmed from "moral responsibility," The Washington Post reported at the time.

In 2017, President Emmanuel Macron vowed that France would work toward the "temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa," remarks that prompted other European museums to consider returning - or loaning - items stolen from former colonies.

However, some European museums have argued that their artifacts were acquired legally. They may also face legal obstacles that prevent them from removing items from their collections.

The French presidency said in a statement that the return of the objects to their country of origin would allow the "African youth to have access to their own heritage in Africa, and not in Europe only," according to AP.

In December 2020, lawmakers in France voted "overwhelmingly in favor" of returning 27 cherished artifacts that were taken during the colonial era to Senegal and Benin.

French Culture Minister Roselyne Bachelot explained that Macron was seeking to "renew and deepen the partnership between France and the African continent."

However, she also stressed that the law applied only to those 27 artifacts, and "does not establish any general right to restitution."

The official transfer of the treasures is due to be signed in Paris on Nov. 9, with the collection expected to be back in its original country a few days later - after being away from West Africa for more than 100 years.

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