Europe, US Restitution Sees Halting Progress As Public Opinion Shifts


While restitution has been a central topic in the art world on and off for decades, there has no doubt been a sea change in recent years. In 2023 there was a near-constant stream of news about returned and seized objects, launched initiatives, lawsuits ongoing and settled, and agreements struck between countries in the Global South and Europe. While restitution and repatriation debates still run hot, we appear to have reached a tipping point.

Most observers cite French president Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 speech in Burkina Faso—when he said he wanted “the conditions met for the temporary or definitive restitution of African heritage to Africa”—as the start of the new era in restitution. Similarly disruptive was a 2018 report on African cultural objects in French museums that Macron commissioned, authored by Bénédicte Savoy, head of modern art history at the Technical University of Berlin, and Senegalese academic Felwine Sarr. It estimated that 90 to 95 percent of the continent’s artistic heritage is located outside Africa, and urged repatriation of requested artifacts.

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An image of the Metropolitan Museum of Art centers a collage surrounded by various artifacts and a protest sign.

Since that time, France, Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, and recently, Switzerland have created national guidelines or panels to evaluate restitution claims and return artifacts acquired during the respective colonial periods. In addition, Belgium and France have adopted laws in recent years to facilitate the process and, in 2024, Austria and France are expected to propose new legislation along the same lines. Germany made waves in 2021 when it agreed unconditionally to transfer 1,100 so-called Benin Bronzes to Nigeria; it has so far delivered 22. 2023 saw renewed efforts, particularly around proactive provenance research and restitutions. Last May the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced a relatively large new unit dedicated to provenance research, following repeated seizures of antiquities by the Manhattan district attorney’s office. And, this past October, Germany and France’s culture ministries announced an agreement to launch a joint fund to research provenance of museum artifacts deriving from formerly colonized African regions.

“It’s as if we’ve changed eras,” Savoy told ARTnews recently. “It’s as though the Berlin Wall has fallen.”

In Europe, One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal (C - up) delivers his government statement of general policy before the French Senate, French Parliament's upper house, in Paris on January 31, 2024, three weeks after his appointment by the French President. (Photo by Miguel MEDINA / AFP) (Photo by MIGUEL MEDINA/AFP via Getty Images)

French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal delivers his government statement of general policy before the French Senate, French Parliament’s upper house, in Paris on January 31, 2024.

AFP via Getty Images

Despite progress, some countries and institutional collections have stalled restitution efforts.

When Savoy and Sarr’s report was released in France, critics complained that it went too far in alleging that most artifacts from former African colonies were very likely acquired unethically. In April, a second government-commissioned report, written by onetime Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez, tightened restrictions on requirements for restitution. It was designed to guide lawmakers drafting legislation to enable the deaccession of plundered artworks, particularly from Africa. Currently, most objects in France’s national collection cannot be restituted without the vote of parliament. The bill is the most controversial of three so-called “framework” laws: The first was voted into law this summer, and concerns Nazi looting—as reported in last fall’s ARTnews Top 200 issue; the second, on human remains, was signed into law December 26. The last framework law, on colonial-era restitutions, is by far the most controversial and is already considered to be overdue. And while France has returned 26 artifacts to Benin and a sword to Senegal, the number of returned objects has fallen well short of vague initial promises.

Rima Abdul Malak, France’s minister of culture, told ARTnews that “case-by-case” restitutions of objects would become more feasible when the third law is adopted, giving professionals necessary criteria and a plan of action.

The United Kingdom parliament, meanwhile, passed the Charities Act in 2022, in which sections 15 and 16 “would allow national museums to return material in rare cases where there is an overwhelming moral obligation to do so,” Alexander Herman, director of the UK-based Institute of Art & Law (IAL), told ARTnews. However, enforcement of those sections has been temporarily blocked. And the Parthenon Marbles remain at the center of a seemingly endless series of negotiations between Greece and the UK, which has so far been reluctant to relinquish ownership.

In Germany, the return of some Benin bronzes to Nigeria faced backlash when it was revealed in March that the 16th-century artifacts would not go to a planned national museum of West African art, co-funded by Germany, but instead, to Ewuare II, the 40th oba, or ceremonial king, of the Kingdom of Benin (British forces ransacked the king’s palace in 1897). In response, some European institutions paused their plans to return items to Nigeria, while several important German lawmakers called the transfer “a disaster.” That some of the bronzes were made from melted-down brass manilla bracelets, which the Kingdom of Benin received in exchange for slaves, has only added to the controversy.

Others defended Nigeria’s right to do what it pleased with recovered property. “Do we really want to go back to the attitude of the 1970s, when we Europeans equated the return of cultural assets to Africa with loss, destruction, and selling out?” Hermann Parzinger, president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, Berlin’s public museum body, asked in a May statement. While he did not “fear that the bronzes would now disappear,” Parzinger did call for “clarification,” adding, “it is important that the Benin bronzes are shown publicly, as was agreed.”

None of these developments seemed to shake Savoy. “In politics, you have to take a few steps back to take a large step forward,” she said, quoting received advice. In short, even if her approach is not widely adopted, Savoy’s more radical advocacy has helped nudge whole systems in ways that would have been considered impossible just six years ago.

Last year, Savoy and Cameroonian cultural historian Albert Gouaffo presented a new study on looted objects from Cameroon. It estimated that German public museums currently hold 40,000 artifacts from the country, taken during Germany’s short and violent occupation at the turn of the 19th century. None have been returned yet, but that is likely to change. The Cameroon government said it had created a restitution commission to work toward that end.

Public Awareness Is Shaping Restitution Efforts

(L-R) German State Minister for Culture Claudia Roth, Nigerian Culture Minister Layiwola

German State Minister for Culture Claudia Roth, Nigerian Culture Minister Layiwola “Lai” Mohammed, German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock, and Nigerian Foreign Minister Zubairo Dada participate in a ceremony for the signing of an agreement of intent to return the Benin Bronzes to Nigeria at the German foreign ministry in Berlin, Germany, on July 1, 2022.

AFP via Getty Images

As debate heats up in parliaments around the globe, so too have public conversations around restitution. For Savoy, rallying public opinion is critical, because national collections, where most objects are held, are the property of citizens. When well-informed citizens pressure governments and institutions, that’s when change is often made, she said.

In many formerly colonized countries, information about looted or stolen artifacts is also advancing.

“More communities [in Cameroon] are interested in restitution, but also in reparations for the people killed, sometimes in the hundreds,” Richard Tsogang Fossi, a fellow at the Technical University of Berlin, who worked on Savoy/Gouaffo’s Cameroon study, told ARTnews.

Meanwhile, Yrine Karitou Matchinda, a doctoral candidate at Cameroon’s University of Dschang, interviewed local residents, often deep in rural areas, where older generations could recall how religious relics were used. But that memory is dwindling.

“The first thing you notice, is that there is a great absence,” Matchinda told ARTnews. “We lost track and the transmission of this knowledge,” which is why, Matchinda said, most Cameroonians know little about the items taken from their region during German occupation.

“There is always an interest to know about the objects, and a wish to see them come back … It’s about wanting to show future generations how their parents lived, so they can reconnect to their ancestral past,” she said.

Indeed, contrary to common assumptions, local leaders have been requesting restitutions since many countries in the Global South achieved independence in the 1960s, according to Savoy’s 2022 book, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat.

In Nigeria, “everybody is now aware, and curious,” about the looted Benin City palace treasure, Mark Olaitan, curator at the National Museum, Benin City, told ARTnews. He added that the Nigerian government has been working on a storage facility for the artifacts, which are currently “in safe hands.” He gave no further details about their whereabouts or plans for future display. The head of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments did not return requests for comment.

Meanwhile, the Democratic Republic of the Congo has been working this year to create a system for handling restituted artifacts from European museums, after receiving an inventory of 84,000 Congolese objects in Belgium last year. Indonesia established a restitution team to work with the Netherlands and other European countries on returning artifacts, while activists in Nepal have agitated frequently since 2021 for the return of religious statues to the country.

In Europe and North America, wider public support for restitution is often traced to the racial justice movement ignited by the police killing of George Floyd, according to Leila Amineddoleh, a New York–based art lawyer who has advocated for the return of the Parthenon Marbles to Greece.

“Part of this movement is a recognition that heritage is important to everyone. It should be accessible to everyone, and the people in the origin nations as well,” she told ARTnews.

Amineddoleh has received multiple calls asking what to do about artifacts in family collections that are now seen as a “liability.” Many believed they were showing support for a culture—and artwork—they hoped to promote as equal in relevance and value to Western art when the pieces were purchased decades ago. Now, some of Amineddoleh’s clients are simply returning items to their countries of origin, not to “burden their children” and to avoid bad publicity from later seizure. While a market still exists for works from looted areas, she added, it most often takes place privately.

The Fate of the ‘Encyclopedic’ Museum

LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 23: The exterior of the British Museum on August 23, 2023, in London, England. British Museum officials launched an investigation into the theft of artefacts after discovering that stolen items, comprising gold jewelry, semiprecious stones, and glass valued at up to £50,000, were being offered on eBay for as little as £40.  (Photo Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The British Museum.

Photo Leon Neal/Getty Images

The impulse to err on the side of returning objects is visibly spreading, particularly at large institutions.

Alex Nyerges, director of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) told ARTnews that the museum’s trustees have consistently supported cases of possible restitution. Earlier this month, the VMFA repatriated 44 ancient artifacts from Italy, Egypt, and Turkey following a New York State and federal inquiry.

“Our philosophy is that we are merely guardians of our collections. If there is a question of title, we always do the right thing,” he said.

To that end, Nyerges said he felt museums should not shy from acquiring artifacts with insufficient provenance (as opposed to “questionable provenance,” which is a red flag), because there is a better likelihood of restituting items found in museums than in private collections. But not all museums are consistently cooperative. This fall the Cleveland Museum of Art sued the Manhattan District Attorney’s office over the seizure of a headless male bronze statue, citing a lack of “persuasive proof” for doing so.

Though a majority of the UK public has consistently favored restituting the Parthenon Marbles, according to recent polls, the government position has changed little since it rejected Greece’s claim in 1984, IAL director Herman writes in his new book, The Parthenon Marbles Dispute, published late last year. The government views the sculptures as a legal acquisition, which their laws prevent them from deaccessioning, and it insists on the importance of seeing the marbles within the global historic context provided by the British Museum, where they are housed.

That last argument, however, was weakened when the British Museum announced this past summer that it has been subject to systematic theft, allegedly by a staff member. More than 2,000 objects are said have been lost, stolen, or damaged over the course of three decades.

“The right to call itself ‘the museum of the world’ … is wearing thin,” UK lawmaker Sharmishta Chakrabarti said during a December House of Lords debate on the Marbles. “I fear the government is taking the concept of culture war to new and ever more literal levels … the government’s marbles are long since lost,” she said.

While restitution has been political from the get-go, to some, that can cloud judgment.

Art historian Bernard de Grunne, of the eponymous Belgian gallery, which deals in tribal fine arts, told ARTnews he believes restitution advocates are overlooking countless examples of fairly purchased items due to political aims.

“It’s not an objective, historical issue. It’s become a political issue and a pressure point,” he said. “I think the West did a great service to save what was left of these artistic heritages of Africa. I think a majority of it would have disappeared.”

At the heart of the debate is the concept of the Western encyclopedic museum, such as the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. Critics have long noted that citizens of the Global South cannot easily access these museums, whose collections comprise significant works from those cultures. Some have argued that such artifacts can be exhibited in their countries of origin without necessarily “emptying” the institutions that hold them, by organizing traveling exhibitions and long-term loans. A conference this past May in Dakar, Senegal, brought together 60 museum directors from Africa and Europe who pledged to cooperate on just such efforts. Others question whether the requesting country will exhibit restituted works to the public, and conserve them as national heritage.

“We are still stuck in what we call the ‘universal museum,’ and the sacralization of objects,” art lawyer Corinne Hershkovitch told ARTnews. “To say that another country is not capable of conserving [artworks]—those are our norms, which we are imposing … We are still far behind being able to discuss these questions in a dialogue between equals, on equal footing.”

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