France’s President Emmanuel Macron reached an agreement with Benin’s President Patrice Talon in Paris to repatriate 26 artworks to the former French colony.
The 26 works of art were taken from Benin’s Palaces of Abomey in 1892, and have been on exhibit in a museum in Paris since then, alongside hundreds of other relics taken from Africa during colonial control.
They will now be returned, although they are only a small portion of the 5,000 works that Benin is seeking. Experts believe that 85 to 90% of African cultural artifacts have been removed from the continent.
Some were taken by colonial authorities, troops, or doctors and passed down to successors, who gave them to European museums. Others, on the other hand, were given as missionary gifts, purchased by African art collectors at the turn of the century, or unearthed during scientific missions.
Macron stated in 2017 that he would begin the process of returning the artworks that France had seized from the Abomey Palaces.
Talon reacted to by saying that restoring the items stolen during the ransacking of the Kingdom of Dahomey in present-day Benin, including a regal throne, brought him great joy.
He told reporters at the presidential palace in Paris, where France signed over the antiques to Benin, that the riches were far more than just cultural products, correcting the term France used to describe them.
“This is our soul, Mr President” he said.
The French president welcomed the event as a symbolic, poignant, and historic moment that Africans had been waiting for. The repatriation of the artefacts seized from Abomey palace, which included three totemic figures, comes as pressure mounts in Africa for European countries to return colonial relics lining museum shelves.
According to a survey commissioned by Macron, there are around 90,000 African works in French museums, with 70,000 of them in the Quai Branly alone.
Other African countries have also requested that missing valuables be returned from the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Germany. Nigeria, for example, announced a month ago that it had reached an agreement with Germany to return hundreds of so-called Benin Bronzes — metal plaques and sculptures from the 16th to 18th century that were taken from the ancient Benin Kingdom’s capital in modern-day Nigeria.
Belgium has also stated that it intends to return many items plundered from the former Democratic Republic of Congo.
The handover represents a watershed moment in Africa’s years-long quest to reclaim works stolen by European explorers and colonizers, coming at a time when many European institutions are coping with colonialism’s cultural legacies.