restitution

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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In a Landmark Restitution, the U.S. Returns 200 Looted Antiquities From Top Museums and Private Collections to Italy


Painted jars, marble busts, ceramic figurines, and even an ancient Roman statue reportedly sold to Kim Kardashian are part of a trove of 200 objects confiscated by U.S. authorities that have landed in Italy as part of the largest-ever repatriation agreement between the two countries. The objects were surrendered by museums and private collections across the United States.

The haul, which traveled on a commercial flight to Rome on Friday, is estimated to be worth around $10 million. “For years, prestigious museums and private collectors across the United States prominently displayed these Italian historical treasures even though their very presence in America constituted evidence of cultural heritage crimes,” the Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said in a statement.

Around 160 of them are linked to a single antiquities dealer, Edoardo Almagià, a 70-year-old from Rome accused of running a 30-year smuggling operation. Due to statutes of limitations, he is unlikely to face criminal charges. But for Italy, the objects’ return is a victory in its own right.

Pithos with Ulysses, Head of a Maiden, and Baltimore Painter Krater, three of some 200 stolen artifacts the Manhattan D.A. is repatriating to Italy. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan D.A.

Pithos with Ulysses, Head of a Maiden, and Baltimore Painter Krater, three of some 200 stolen artifacts the Manhattan D.A. is repatriating to Italy. Photo courtesy of the Manhattan D.A.

“What is most important is that these very important archaeological findings come back that are part of our culture identity,” Italian police official Roberto Riccardi, who serves in a cultural heritage unit of the Carabinieri, told the New York Times.

Seven of the repatriated artifacts were from the Getty Museum in Los Angeles, including a 2,500-year-old wine cup. The San Antonio Museum of Art returned five Greco-Roman jars and plates and a selection of pottery fragments, while the Cleveland Museum of Art turned over three works.

Others came from galleries and private collections in New York City and Long Island. According to federal documents, Kim Kardashian was in the process of acquiring one of the works, an ancient Roman statue, when it was detained at the U.S. border in 2016. (A spokesman for the celebrity later told Midnight Publishing Group News that Kardashian had “never seen this sculpture,” leading to speculation that her ex Kanye West was behind the scuppered purchase.)

Nearly half of the illicit objects were from the Museum of Greek, Etruscan, and Roman Art at Fordham University in the Bronx. The museum opened in 2007 at the school’s Walsh Library, which is named after alumnus and donor William D. Walsh, who gifted his alma mater his collection of 260 antiquities. He later donated an additional 40 objects to the museum, which has since made modest acquisitions of its own.

Fordham has been forced to turn over a cache of about 100 Greco-Roman artifacts valued at close to $2 million, all but two of which come from Almagià. The museum’s holdings still include some 200 antiquities.

Authorities maintain that Walsh, who died in 2013, was unaware of Almagià’s illicit actions, but news coverage of the museum’s opening noted the potential for looted art.

“It’s a slightly imprudent act on the part of the university, because a lot of it is not provenanced,” Richard Hodges, the director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, told the New York Times at the time.

For his part, Almagià denied and attempted to minimize the allegations against him when reached by the Times. Investigations into his actions date back to at least 1996. In 2000, he was caught with stolen frescoes from the ancient Roman city of Herculaneum at New York’s Kennedy Airport.

He left the U.S. in 2006 and authorities raided his Upper East Side apartment, finding six looted artifacts. An Italian court acquitted Almagià in a 2012 smuggling case, but the ruling acknowledged he had helped illegally move Italian antiquities.

The Manhattan D.A.’s office believes that other museums around the country still hold artifacts once owned by Almagià, so additional restitutions may be forthcoming.

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Benin Bronzes Are Scattered All Over World. We Asked Museums That Hold Them Where They Stand on Restitution


Germany’s landmark announcement that it would begin to restitute Benin bronzes as soon as 2022 sent ripples through museum communities around the world. The contentious objects, known to have been looted from the Benin Royal Palace in 1897, are scattered across some of the most prominent museums the world over. From institutions like the Metropolitan Museum in New York, which holds 163 pieces, to the University of Pennsylvania’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, which holds 100 pieces, these treasures have become a focal point of debate in recent years over the restitution of ill-gotten goods from the colonial era.

All told, there are some 160 institutions holding Benin bronzes, a term for an array of pieces that span intricate bronze plaques, carved wood, and ivory objects. Nigeria has been actively pursuing their return, an initiative that has ramped up in recent years as plans have come together for a major museum to hold them, the Edo Museum of West African Art, in Benin City. It is due to open in 2025.

Midnight Publishing Group News reached out to 30 museums known to hold Benin bronzes to ask for an update on their position on restitution, and the status of objects in their collection.

Photograph of an ancestral shrine at the Royal Palace, Benin City taken during the visit of Cyril Punch in 1891. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution. EEPA.1993-014.

Photograph of an ancestral shrine at the Royal Palace, Benin City taken during the visit of Cyril Punch in 1891. Eliot Elisofon Photographic Archives, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution.

British Museum, London

Number of Benin bronzes: 928

Position on restitution: “We believe the strength of the British Museum collection resides in its breadth and depth, allowing millions of visitors an understanding of the cultures of the world and how they interconnect over time—whether through trade, migration, conquest, or peaceful exchange…The British Museum works in partnership with colleagues, communities, and organisations across the world. We are currently collaborating with the Legacy Restoration Trust in Nigeria and Adjaye Associates on a major new archaeology project linked to the construction of the Edo Museum of West African Art. This innovative collaboration will investigate the archaeology of the Kingdom of Benin, including archaeological remains buried below the proposed site of the new museum. The Edo Museum will reunite Benin artworks from international collections. The Benin Dialogue Group, of which the British Museum is a member, will work with the museum to help develop this new permanent display of Benin works of art.”

Status of restitution requests or returns: No comment given

Initiatives of which the museum is a part: Member of the Benin Dialogue Group

Weltmuseum, Vienna

Number of Benin bronzes: 173, including 13 of which have been proven to have have left the Kingdom of Benin as a direct result of the 1897 invasion. Eight others were acquired significantly before 1897 and were part of the Habsburg collections since the 16th century.

Position on restitution: “The Weltmuseum Wien has been following developments in Germany and other European countries regarding the return of objects from the Benin Kingdom to Nigeria very closely. The collections of the Weltmuseum Wien remain the property of the Republic of Austria. The museum itself is not therefore authorized to make decisions regarding the return or deaccessioning of objects. Such decisions are made by federal government authorities in consultation with the museum… The museum has also committed to ensuring that Benin works from its collection are shown in Benin City; to be fully transparent to our Nigerian partners and the public about the objects in Vienna; and to continue to research the provenance and significance of the objects themselves.”

Status of restitution requests or returns: No formal request has been made for the return of these objects

Initiatives of which the museum is a part: Member of the Benin Dialogue Group and Digital Benin

Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, Cambridge, UK

Number of Benin bronzes: 136

Position on restitution: In 2019, the museum developed a new framework for the return of artifacts. The policy notes that consideration will be given to whether artifacts were ‘appropriated in the aftermath of violence, for example in the context of a colonial intrusion or war.’ Over recent years, staff have visited Benin City, and Benin representatives have visited Cambridge.”

Status of restitution requests or returns: “No claim has yet been made for the return of Benin works, but it is anticipated that a proposal to return artifacts will in due course be made and considered through the process set out in the policy. Given the published criteria, it is anticipated that the claim would be supported and steps taken to return the artifacts.”

A visitor takes photos of the contentious Benin bronzes that are on display at the British Museum in London. Photo: David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

A visitor takes photos of the contentious Benin bronzes that are on display at the British Museum in London. Photo: David Cliff/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images.

Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums

Number of Benin bronzes: 105

Position on restitution: “The Pitt Rivers Museum has been working with Nigerian stakeholders, including representatives of the Royal Court and the Legacy Restoration Trust, to identify best ways forward regarding the care and return of these objects from the Court currently in the museums’ care… We acknowledge the profound loss the 1897 looting of Benin City caused and, alongside our partners of the Benin Dialogue Group, we aim to work with stakeholders in Nigeria to be part of a process of redress.”

Status of restitution requests or returns: No comment given

Initiatives of which the museum is a part: Member of the Benin Dialogue Group

National Museums Scotland, Edinburg

Number of Benin bronzes: 74

Position on restitution: “Our current policy on requests for the return of objects to their country or location of origin is that we consider each on a case by case basis.”

Initiatives: We are a member of the Benin Dialogue Group and are committed to working with other museums across Europe and representatives of the Edo State Government, the Royal Court of Benin, and the National Commission for Museums and Monuments, Nigeria, sharing information and knowledge and working towards a major reunion of the Benin works of art in Benin City. We are also working with the Digital Benin project to understand ​and share more about the provenance of the Benin objects in our care.

Exhibition view of "Looted Art? The Benin Bronzes" at MKG in Hamburg. Photo by Michaela Hille.

Exhibition view of “Looted Art? The Benin Bronzes” at MKG in Hamburg. Photo by Michaela Hille.

Horniman Museum, London

Number of Benin bronzes: 50 objects, including 15 brass plaques

Position on restitution: “Any returns, including the future of its collection of objects from Benin City, is laid out in our Restitution and Repatriation Policy, published on our website. The policy sets out a clear procedure for repatriation claims and includes a commitment to sharing information and transparency of process. The Horniman has, at the time of writing, received no repatriation requests which means that no definitive decision has been reached about repatriation of any object.”

Status of restitution requests or returns: None

Initiatives of which the museum is a part: Partner in the Rethinking Relationships and Building Trust around African Collections project

National Museum of Ireland, Dublin

Number of Benin bronzes: 21 objects, including armlets, wooden paddles, figures, and a staff

Position on restitution: “Like so many museums that were opened in the 19th century, the museum has legacy collections that do not reflect contemporary collecting practice or ethics. The National Museum of Ireland is committed to engaging with colleagues and officials in Nigerian museums, to progress a restitution process in relation to the Benin Bronzes… All of this work will be further supported through a comprehensive strategy which is underway within the museum to fully investigate and adequately resource provenance research of the wider 15,000 object ethnographical collection.”

Status of restitution requests or returns: No comment given

Initiatives of which the museum is a part: Member of Digital Benin

Carved elephant tusks looted by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 are displayed in the "Where Is Africa" exhibition at the Linden Museum on May 05, 2021 in Stuttgart, Germany. Photo: Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images.

Carved elephant tusks looted by British soldiers from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 are displayed in the “Where Is Africa” exhibition at the Linden Museum on May 05, 2021 in Stuttgart, Germany. Photo: Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images.

Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver

Number of Benin bronzes: 20, including 14 of which have been identified as recent replicas and six which may be older

Position on restitution: “The Museum of Anthropology at UBC has been engaged in repatriation since the 1990s. We strive to fulfil repatriation as established by the UNDRIP, the Calls to Action from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada, and the UBC Strategic Indigenous Plan, reflected in UBC and MOA’s policies, namely the Guidelines for Repatriation.”

Status of restitution requests or returns: None

Initiatives of which the museum is a part: Digital Benin

 

Museum of Cultures, Basel

Number of Benin bronzes: 20 objects from Benin City, including 16 brass objects, two ivory pieces, and two wooden objects.

Position on restitution: It welcomes any request and open-ended dialogue

Status of restitution requests or returns: None

Initiatives of which the museum is a part: Benin Dialogue Group, Benin Digital, and the Swiss research group Benin Initiative Switzerland

 

National Museum of African Art at the Smithsonian, Washington, D.C.

Number of Benin Bronzes: 43 objects. Sixteen pieces are confirmed to have been raided in 1897 and 23 further artifacts that have an unclear provenance.

Position on restitution: “Members of the royal kingdom of Benin have visited the museum over the years, touring our exhibitions and collections storage and viewing the photographs relevant to the kingdom in our photographic archives. The museum has had a strong relationship with Oba and members of the royal court of Benin over the years. They are aware of the objects in our collection and appreciate that we continue to tell the story about how the kingdom’s treasures were looted from the palace in 1897. The National Museum of African Art is aware of the Legacy Restoration Trust in Nigeria, but we are not part of the Benin Dialogue Group associated with that trust and the formation of a new museum devoted to the royal arts of Benin.”

Status of restitution requests or returns: None

Initiatives of which the museum is a part: Digital Benin

A small brass relief plate from the Benin Empire depicting royal hornblowers from a drawer of a rolling shelf in the depot of the Dresden State Art Collections in Dresden. Photo: Arno Burgi/picture alliance via Getty Images.

A small brass relief plate from the Benin Empire depicting royal hornblowers from a drawer of a rolling shelf in the depot of the Dresden State Art Collections in Dresden. Photo: Arno Burgi/picture alliance via Getty Images.

Glasgow Art Gallery, Glasgow

Position on restitution: “Glasgow will continue to build on its established approach to restitution, founded on constructive engagement, with the people of Glasgow and the descendent communities or nations making the request, to support each individual situation. Moving forward Glasgow Life, on behalf of Glasgow City Council, will consider the most appropriate way to directly instigate discussions with descendant communities or their nominated representatives, whenever we can identify them, by sharing all relevant information that we have. Through cultural agencies in Nigeria, Glasgow Life, has established a pathway of communication with the Royal Family of Benin, and as a result we are in a position to begin a dialogue.”

Number of Benin bronzes: 8 bronzes and 21 other cultural artifacts whose exact provenance has not been established, including objects typically placed on the ancestral altars of the Obas of Benin that are currently attributed to late 19th-century Edo culture

Restitution requests: 9 repatriation requests, six of which have been successful

Initiatives of which the museum is a part: Digital Benin, the PRM Devolving Restitution Project, and the Commonwealth Association of Museums

Cleveland Museum of Art

Number of Benin bronzes: Eight objects, including five thought to have been removed from the Benin Kingdom during the Siege of Benin of 1897 and three Benin works needing further research.

Position on restitution: “As all of these works are undergoing further research; the museum is not in a position to make a statement as to any future actions. The Cleveland Museum of Art’s profound commitment to transparency and the highest ethical standards is apparent both from the way that our curator of African arts has interpreted these works in our galleries and from our long track record of engagement around cultural property issues.”

 

Royal African Museum, Tervuren, Belgium

Number of Benin Bronzes: 1

Position on restitution: “In the ongoing debate regarding the restitution of African cultural heritage, the museum takes an open and constructive position. It is an active participant in the dialogue with authorities and museum policy representatives, and with Belgians of African descent from the relevant countries. The RMCA acknowledges that it is not normal for such a large part of African cultural heritage to be found in the West, given that the countries of origin have moral ownership of such heritage… From a legal standpoint, the collections of the RMCA are the inalienable property of the federal state and belong to federal heritage. Restitution can only be decided upon by the federal minister for Science Policy within a strict legal framework and would require approval by parliament… There is currently no legal framework for restitution in Belgium.” Read full policy here.

Status of restitution requests or returns: No formal requests for restitution

Initiatives: Involved in a dialogue with the National Museum of Congo and of Rwanda to discuss a program of long-term collaboration and restitution.

Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, Canada

Number of Benin Bronzes: 1 object with a confirmed provenance

Position on restitution: “The ROM adheres to the Museum’s Collections Policy which follows accepted museum standards and guidelines on the deaccessioning of objects.”

Status of restitution requests or returns: None

Initiatives:  Benin Dialogue Group

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