As a Belgian Politician, I Feel a Responsibility to Restitute Stolen Artifacts to the Congo. Here’s Why My Fellow Citizens Should, Too

Thomas Dermine is Belgium’s State Secretary for Scientific Policy, Recovery Program, and Strategic Investments. This month, he made a proposal that was accepted by the federal government to create a bilateral accord with the Democratic Republic of the Congo—the aim is to create a collaborative approach on objects acquired illegitimately during the colonial era. The region that is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo was once a colony of Belgium, existing as the Congo Free State and then Belgian Congo, between 1885 and 1960.

Belgium’s King Philippe addressed the two nations during a ceremony last year to mark the 60th anniversary of independence of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, once a colony of Belgium. “Our history is made up of common achievements but has also known painful episodes,” he said. “During the era of the independent state of Congo, acts of violence and cruelty were committed, which still weigh on our collective memory. The colonial period which followed also caused suffering and humiliation.”

Time does not erase anything. At best, it covers faded memories with a veil, which are rekindled with the first breeze. It was time for these apologies from the highest level of the state. Further on in his speech, the King emphasized that in order to “further strengthen our ties and develop an even more fruitful friendship, we must be able to talk to each other about our long common history in all truth and in all serenity.”

I am convinced that colonialism was a fundamentally unjust system of territorial occupation, economic exploitation, and physical and mental violence. It is essential to avoid a facelift of colonialism and we therefore have to abolish the historical and structural inequality of knowledge. Concrete actions such as the restitution of illegitimately acquired colonial collections can help us achieve this. They can also influence the attitude and behavior of our population towards racism, xenophobia, and intolerance. That is why I propose that we need a formal accord on restitution—we need practical and concrete action.

Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © David Plas.

Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © David Plas.


Today, the population in the Democratic Republic of the Congo is characterized by the importance of its youth: 60 percent of the inhabitants are under 20 years old. The access of youth to their own culture is of foremost importance, as is access to the creativity and spirituality of eras whose knowledge and recognition cannot be reserved for Western societies or diasporas living in Europe. We cannot enjoy our museums without completely ignoring the hidden side of certain objects. There are objects that were taken, with or without the consent of the country of origin, during scientific missions and military expeditions, and as a result of the movement of territorial agents or evangelizing activities. It is important that visitors of our museums know how certain objects got into these display cases.

Victor Hugo once said that “nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come,” and I think that the time has come for the return of looted objects to the Congo. Objects illegitimately acquired by our ancestors do not belong to us. They are not ours. They belong to the Congolese people. Period.

The objective of our proposition to the government, which we formally made earlier this month, first addresses the holdings of the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren. The approach is based on two principles. First, we need to separate the issue of the legal transfer of property from the issue of physical restitution. Too often in the past, discussions about colonial objects have been stopped by concerns around conservation—to enable the transfer of property, the alienable character of all the objects for which it has not yet been possible to determine that Belgium has acquired them legitimately, must first be legally recognized.

A view from the gallery Rituals and Ceremonies at the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver.

This allows us to solve the question of ownership and to give ourselves time in a bilateral framework to build the conditions for return and conservation. The second principle of our approach is to create a dialogue between the two countries, which must be the common thread of the entire process—the material transfer of these objects must be part of a bilateral diplomatic framework. This will ideally be done in a cooperation that strengthens conditions for conservation.

This two-pronged approach will be applied to three categories of objects that were acquired during the colonial period in Congo. There are objects for which we know they were acquired illegitimately. These objects must be made alienable for restitution purposes. An agreement between Belgium and the Democratic Republic of Congo would set out the conditions under which the Congo could require—if they so wished—the physical transfer of the objects to its territory.

The second category includes objects for which we know they have been legitimately acquired. These are obviously kept in the public domain of the state, within our collections.

A view from the gallery Rituals and Ceremonies © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver

A view from the gallery Rituals and Ceremonies at the Africa Museum in Tervuren, Belgium. © RMCA, Tervuren, photo Jo Van de Vijver.

The third category includes objects where it is not clear if they were acquired illegitimately or not. Regarding these objects, it will be necessary to accelerate the studies of provenance with scientific teams from both nations. Objects awaiting investigation or those whose investigation would not make it possible to determine the legitimate or illegitimate nature of the acquisition would be alienable, which would symbolically distinguish them from legitimately acquired objects.

We cannot change the past, and Belgium will have to live with this troubled colonial history and heritage. However, it is our collective responsibility to act on the present in order to modify our future and that of the coming generations—here in Belgium, but also in Congo. Colonization and certain abuses committed in this context have long deprived generations of Congolese of access to their heritage, history, culture, creativity, and to the spirituality of their ancestors.

Through this work on restitution, we want to engage in this direction—hand in hand with the Congolese people.

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Police Get a Stunning Tip on the Fate of a Picasso Stolen From an Athens Museum + Other Stories

Art Industry News is a daily digest of the most consequential developments coming out of the art world and art market. Here’s what you need to know on this Thursday, February 11.


Philanthropist to Donate $5 Million to Help Diversify Museums  – The Indian human rights activist and gallerist Amar Singh has pledged to donate $5 million in artworks by women, LGBTQ+, and minority artists before 2025. “Museums are safe-keepers of culture and humanity,” Singh said of the commitment. “But the reality is that they have historically failed us. They have not represented humanity across the board.” The philanthropist has already donated a six-figure painting by Maria Berrio to LACMA, and a portrait of the US Inauguration poet Amanda Gorman by Raphael Adjetey Adjei Mayne to Harvard. (Vanity Fair)

Grantmaker Pulls $2 Million Grant From Poland’s “LGBT-Free Zone” – Norway Grants has pulled €1.65 million ($2 million) in European heritage funding from the Polish region of Podkarpackie after local councilors voted for a resolution to “resist the promotion of LGBT ideology.” The resolution conflicts with the grant’s founding principles of respect for all human rights. The grant was officially withdrawn last year but is just now coming to light. (The Art Newspaper)

Oaxaca Museum Staff In Standoff With Governing Foundation – A foundation that supports the Museo de Arte Contemporaneo in Oaxaca, Mexico, is caught in a terse standoff with museum employees. The museum’s director, Cecilia Mingüer, says that Los Amigos del MACO has not paid staff salaries for 10 months, and is vying to shut the institution down. In protest, Mingüer has been locking herself into the building at night. (TAN)

Greek Police Get a Lead on a Stolen Picasso – A new investigation has led Greek authorities to believe that Picasso’s 1939 Head of a Woman, which was taken from Athens’s National Gallery in 2012, may still be in the country. Police believe the stolen work was offered for $20 million on the country’s illicit market, but that it never found a buyer because of its high profile. Authorities hope to see the work returned before the reopening of the National Gallery in March. (ARTnews)


Ali Banisadr Joins Victoria Miro – Victoria Miro has added the Brooklyn-based painter Ali Banisadr to its roster, and will hold his first solo exhibition in 2022. Thaddaeus Ropac gallery and Kasmin Gallery will continue to co-represent the artist. (Press release

Orlando Museum Names New Executive Director — The museum has hired Aaron De Groft, formerly head of the Muscarelle Museum of Art at the College of William & Mary, as its new CEO and director. De Groft will replace Glen Gentele, who left the museum last February amid a clash with the board. (Orlando Sentinel)


Asian Art Museum Returns Looted Objects – San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum will return two ancient temple lintels to Thailand. The museum removed the religious relics from view after they were alerted by US authorities in 2017 that they might have been illegally exported from Thailand. They have now forfeited the objects to the government, which will work with Thai authorities to repatriate them. (Courthouse News)

An Ancient Musical Conch Is Played Once Again – Experts have discovered that an 18,000-year-old conch in Toulouse’s Natural History Museum was actually an ancient wind instrument that could have been used for ceremonial purposes. The vessel was originally archived as a cup, but after re-examination, experts found it to have been partially hand crafted and painted, and brought in a professional horn player to give it life once more. (Smithsonian)


Google Wants You to Hear Colors – A new Google Arts & Culture project called “Play a Kandinsky” explores Kandinsky’s synaesthesia by imagining what the artist might have heard when he looked at color. Based on Kandinsky’s own writings , the interactive tool lets you experience the sounds of his 1925 work Yellow Red Blue by clicking into different parts of the painting. (CNET) 

See Inside Buontalenti’s Grotto in Florence – You can now explore the Italian Renaissance architect Buontalenti’s grotto and its breathtaking Tuscan Mannerist sculptures at the Uffizi Galleries in Florence online. The site has been digitized in high-definition 3D, and visitors can walk around inside using their cell phones or computers. (Press release)

The Grotta Buontalenti in 3D. Image courtesy the Uffizi Galleries.

The Grotta Buontalenti in 3D. Image courtesy the Uffizi Galleries.

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The Dutch Government Just Promised to Return Any Stolen Colonial-Era Objects in Its Collections Back to Their Countries of Origin

The government of the Netherlands has agreed to put in place guidelines that could make it a global leader in restituting colonial-era objects.

The guidelines follow recommendations in a report issued by an advisory commission led by experts from the nation’s leading museums.

The document, published in October, called for a “recognition that an injustice was done to the local populations of former colonial territories when cultural objects were taken against their will,” and recommended those artifacts be returned to the former colonies.

“It’s groundbreaking, it’s progressive, it’s a radical break with the past,” Jos van Beurden, an expert on colonial restitution, told the Art Newspaper. “It’s crucial that the discussion is no longer restricted to war trophies.”

Colonial artifacts from the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures. Photo courtesy of the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures.

Colonial artifacts from the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures. Photo courtesy of the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures.

The government will now establish an independent committee to assess restitution requests and to advise museums as to whether an object was acquired involuntarily.

“Because of the imbalance of power during the colonial era, cultural objects were—effectively—often stolen,” according to a recent statement by the Dutch government.

“If it can be established that an object was indeed stolen from a former Dutch colony, it will be returned unconditionally. Cultural heritage objects that were stolen from a former colony of another country, or which are of particular cultural, historic, or religious significance to a country, may also be eligible for return.”

“The colonial past is a subject that still personally affects many people every day,” Ingrid van Engelshoven, the nation’s minister of education, culture, and science, said in a statement. “This is why we must treat colonial collections with great sensitivity. There is no place in the Dutch state collection for cultural heritage objects that were acquired through theft. If a country wants them back, we will give them back.”

A colonial artifact from the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures. Photo courtesy of the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures.

A colonial artifact from the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures. Photo courtesy of the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures.

The Dutch ministry intends to work with officials in Indonesia, Suriname, and Dutch territories in the Caribbean to research colonial collections and identify looted artifacts.

The Dutch had colonial missions in Asia, Africa, and North and South America, sometimes for hundreds of years, dating back to the beginning of the 17th century.

This history has also led the Dutch National Museum of World Cultures (which oversees the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam, and the Africa Museum in Berg en Dal) to take independent steps toward restitution.

The museum, which estimates 40 percent of the 450,000 pieces in its collection originated in Dutch colonies, established its own guidelines for colonial restitution in March 2019. In December, it announced a four-year €4.5 million ($5.38 million) research project into museum collections amassed during the colonial era.

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Why Does This $10 Million Painting of Dutch Boys Drinking Beer Keep Getting Stolen? + Other Stories

Art Industry News is a daily digest of the most consequential developments coming out of the art world and art market. Here’s what you need to know on this Tuesday, January 19.


German Museums Revise Rules for Handling Human Remains – The German Museum Association is reviewing its eight-year-old guidelines on the handling of human remains. The new guidelines, which will be developed in consultation with the remains’s communities of origin, will be published in German, English, and French before the summer. The goal, according to the association, is to “strengthen the basic understanding of how to deal with human remains in museums.” (Monopol)

An Ancient Archway Has Partly Collapsed in Iraq – Iraq’s Taq Kasra is in “dangerous and critical” condition after the 1,500-year-old archway partially collapsed following heavy rains. The director of the country’s board of antiquities and heritage has issued an urgent call for support to shore up the ancient Persian monument and prevent further damage. Around four meters of the arched roof, which is the world’s largest single-span unreinforced brick vault, has fallen. (Hyperallergic)

Thieves Can’t Stop Stealing This Painting – The New York Times delves into the curious case of Frans Hals’s Two Laughing Boys with a Mug of Beer, which has been stolen three times since 1988. (Most recently, it was pilfered from the tiny Museum Hofje van Mevrouw van Aerden in the Dutch town of Leerdam in August.) Experts believe the painting has become a regular target precisely because of its history of being stolen, which established its value at around $10 million and makes it likely that there is an insurer and a vested interest in getting it back. (New York Times)

Police Find Stolen Salvator Mundi in Naples – In other art theft news, police have located a 16th-century copy of Leonardo da Vinci’s Salvator Mundi that had been stolen from a basilica museum in Naples. (No, it’s not that Salvator Mundi.) The painting—one of around 20 copies of the original attributed to the school of Leonardo, likely painted by one of his students—was uncovered during a police search in an apartment not far from the Museum of San Domenico Maggiore. The apartment’s owner, reportedly 36 years old, has been taken into police custody. (The Art Newspaper)


Dealer Criticizes BBC Show for Tarnishing His Good Name – The BBC has censured the the British television show Bargain Hunt after the program falsely claimed that a Victorian ring bought from a jewelry dealer was actually made in the 1950s. While the BBC has since issued a correction on its website, the dealer has also demanded an on-air apology. (Times)

Victoria Miro Now Represents Flora Yukhnovich – The European gallery has added the London-based painter, whose lush work is inspired by Rococo, to its roster. Yukhnovich was first included in a group show at Victoria Miro in 2019 and has had two solo exhibitions there since. She will have another in London in 2022. (Press release)


BTS Member Named Art Sponsor of the Year – The singer RM, from South Korea’s top boy band BTS, has been named Arts Council Korea’s “art sponsor of the year.” RM was awarded the distinction after he donated ₩100 million ($90,400) to Seoul’s National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art. (The Art Newspaper)

Decision on Looted Pissarro Deferred Again – A resolution in the long-running dispute between the heir of a Nazi-looted artwork by Camille Pissarro and the University of Oklahoma has been pushed back yet again. Lawyers want more time to find a compromise through mediation to determine the fate of La Bergère reentrant des moutons (1886), which was originally due to split time between the US and France as part of a novel sharing agreement. (Le Journal des Arts)


The New-York Historical Society Launches an Oval Office Replica – New York’s Historical Society has built its own replica of the Oval Office for an exhibition about the US presidency. The institution says the exhibit, which is inspired by Ronald Reagan’s office during his second term, has “proved very popular” with visitors. (TAN)

Culture& Launches New Museum School Program – The charity Culture& is launching an advanced program to support alumni of its New Museum School—which funnels new talent into the arts and heritage sector—beyond graduation. “Having listened to the experience of our alumni, we want to address the glass ceiling that they now face,” Culture&’s chief executive Errol Francis says. (Press release)

See Douglas Coupland’s Slogans on Vancouver Billboards – Pithy slogans from the artist Douglas Coupland are now appearing on billboards across Vancouver, Canada, as part of his nine-year-old project “Slogans for the 21st Century.” See a selection here. (The Art Newspaper)

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