Effects

France’s Ministry of Culture Is Pushing Forward a Trio of Groundbreaking Laws That May Have Sweeping Effects on Restitution


French politicians are planning to introduce three framework laws intended to facilitate the restitution of contentious artworks as well as human remains currently held within the country’s public collections. 

The trio of bills was announced by France’s ministry of culture this week. In what would be a first, one of the bills also offers an opportunity to legally acknowledge crimes committed against Jews during World War 2 by the French state, according to a French senator involved in drafting the bills.

Ever since French president Emmanuel Macron made the sweeping 2017 pledge to return African artifacts to the continent, in an attempt to ease relations with former French colonies, a waiting game has ensued; so far, 26 objects stolen from the ancient Palace of Abomey in Benin were restituted to the African country; one object was returned to Senegal; another is on long-term loan to Madagascar. Compared to other European countries, France is considered to be lagging behind on the issue of restitution, despite Macron’s groundbreaking promise. According to the 2018 Sarr-Savoy report on restitution, France has an estimated 90,000 African artifacts in its public museums.

A visitor goes through the exhibition "Art of Benin of yesterday and today: from Restitution to Revelation" at the Marina Palace of Cotonou on July 27, 2022. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

A visitor goes through the exhibition “Art of Benin of yesterday and today: from Restitution to Revelation” at the Marina Palace of Cotonou on July 27, 2022. Photo: Ludovic Marin/AFP via Getty Images

Though parliament voted in favor of returning individual works, progress has been marred by disagreement over procedures for larger-scale returns, and by the fact that objects entering France’s national collection are deemed inalienable by law, meaning that they can only be removed in case-by-case parliamentary votes.

“I hope 2023 will be a year of decisive progress for restitutions,” said French culture minister Rima Abdul Malak in her annual, New Year speech on Monday, January 16. The country’s approach to its own history is “neither one of denial nor of repentance, but one of recognition,” she added. Earlier, Abdul Malak announced the laws would be up for vote this year, making it possible to return an artwork as well as human remains currently in the national collection, without having to revert to parliament for approval, accelerating the process.

The laws will target human remains in museums, an amended version of an earlier bill proposed last year by French senators; another will address works belonging to Jewish families persecuted during the Nazi era; the third considers restitution of art objects, including those from the colonial era. The latter bill is spearheaded by former Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez and notably addresses the return of art objects to Africa, among others. Martinez’s duties as France’s cultural heritage ambassador were reduced after being charged with “complicity” in organized fraud and money laundering in connection to a global art trafficking scandal. 

Growing public awareness around the issue of restitution has spurred this week’s announcement. The minister of culture “is very mobilized on the issue, which is a major change,” according to senator and vice president of a senatorial commission on culture, education and communication Pierre Ouzoulias, who has helped push restitution efforts.

French Culture Minister Rima Abdul-Malak arrives for the first weekly cabinet meeting of the new cabinet at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, France, on May 23, 2022. Photo: Gao Jing/Xinhua via Getty Images.

French Culture Minister Rima Abdul-Malak arrives for the first weekly cabinet meeting of the new cabinet at the Elysee Presidential Palace in Paris, France, on May 23, 2022. Photo: Gao Jing/Xinhua via Getty Images.

With senators Catherine Morin-Desailly and Max Brisson, Ouzoulias proposed a bill in 2021 that was unanimously approved by the senate, to return human remains, but it was blocked by members of Macron’s administration at the time. The amended bill is likely to be put to vote before June. Morin-Desailly, who will present it, said that with continued, increasing demands from foreign nations asking for restitutions, “we’re at a critical point of no-return.” 

In separate interviews, Morin-Desailly and Ouzoulias both noted that the new laws would entail special committees of scientific and legal experts that would include counterparts from the countries requesting restitution. Together, they would determine if an object meets criteria needed to remove it from France’s national collections. Once that conclusion is made, the sitting administration would decide whether or not to return an object, without having to revert to parliament as it does now.

The government will also need to streamline a plan to catalog objects of questionable provenance in French museums, particularly human remains, the total number of which are not known.

The framework law concerning cultural goods seized during France’s Vichy government is also an opportunity to state within law the crimes the French state committed against Jews during World War 2, as justification for the return of an object, said Ouzoulias. Currently, he added that no such wording exists in French law, and he is advocating for such an inclusion in the bill. Both Ouzoulias’ grandparents were in the French Resistance. 

“Without Germany asking them to do so, the Vichy government voted very early for laws which stripped Jews of certain rights … including material goods and artworks,” he noted. Though restitutions have been made to Jewish victims by the French state, and former French president Jacques Chirac officially recognized the state’s anti-Semitic laws of the time, Ouzoulias said France’s parliament has not examined the damage Vichy legislation inflicted upon Jews, while  French courts have. “What’s missing is recognizing it in the law,” he said. “We can offer legal measures to repair those damages … and we can start with artwork.”

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Sylvia Plath’s and Ted Hughes’s Wedding Rings, Love Letters, and Personal Effects Are Open for Bidding at Sotheby’s


A collection of items that belonged to the American writer Sylvia Plath, including personal photos, letters, and drawings, is on sale now in a dedicated, 55-lot online auction hosted by Sotheby’s London.

Bidding for “Your Own Sylvia” opened today and will conclude on July 21. Frieda Hughes, Plath’s first child with husband and fellow poet Ted Hughes, consigned the surprisingly affordable objects, with many estimates coming in below $1,700. (None carry a guarantee, according to a representative from the auction house.)

Among the highlights are an annotated photo album containing pictures of Plath’s and Hughes’s travels across England and America between 1957 and 1962, including shots of the couple with T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden, which are estimated to go for £30,000 to £50,000 ($42,000 to $69,000), and 16 letters Plath wrote to Hughes in the fall of 1956, the only surviving correspondence between the two. The writings are estimated to fetch between £8,000 and £20,000 ($11,000 to $28,000) each. 

“I can’t believe anybody ever loved like this; nobody will again,” Plath wrote to her new husband in a letter dated October 10, 1956. “We will burn love to death all our long lives… .”  

Letters to Ted Hughes from Sylvia Plath, photographed with the couple's wedding rings. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Letters to Ted Hughes from Sylvia Plath, photographed with the couple’s wedding rings. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

“This auction is really about the happiest and the most dynamic part of my parent’s relationship when they were working at their best together and still very passionately in love and supportive of each other,” Frieda Hughes said in a statement.

“I would like to think that this auction will enable these items to go on and continue to have a life beyond me with somebody who will really treasure them.”

Other lots include the couple’s wedding rings (estimated at £6,000 to £8,000), an Egyptian figurine Hughes gifted to Plath on their honeymoon (£800 to £1,200), and a cache of recipes typed up by Plath and others in her family (£800 to £1,200).

Gabriel Heaton, Sotheby’s English literature and historical manuscripts specialist, said that each item in the sale “allows us to better understand the personal life” of Plath.

“The letters in particular,” he added, “offer insight into her passionate love for her husband, Ted Hughes, her fanatical dedication to her writing, as well as her aspirations and hopes for the future.”

See more items included in “Your Own Sylvia” below.

A photo album compiled and annotated by Sylvia Plath. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

A photo album compiled and annotated by Sylvia Plath. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Sylvia Plath with Frieda Hughes, from a collection of 39 family photographs, annotated by her 1960-62. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Sylvia Plath with Frieda Hughes, from a collection of 39 family photographs, annotated by her 1960-62.
Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

A letter Sylvia Plath wrote to Edith & WIlliam Hughes. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

A letter Sylvia Plath wrote to Edith & WIlliam Hughes. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes's wedding rings. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes’s wedding rings. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

An Egyptian-style glazed amulet Ted Hughes gave to Sylvia Plath on their honeymoon. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

An Egyptian-style glazed amulet Ted Hughes gave to Sylvia Plath on their honeymoon. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

A portrait of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in 1961, taken by David Bailey. Courtesy of Sotheby's.

A portrait of Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes in 1961, taken by David Bailey. Courtesy of Sotheby’s.

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