In 2017, during his three-nation visit of the West African states, French President Emmanuel Macron had spoken about the need to return the artefacts that were taken from Africa during the period of colonisation. In his speech at the University of Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, he said that ‘African heritage cannot solely exist in private collections and European museums’ and that ‘African heritage must be showcased in Paris but also in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou’. Moving forward, he also set up a two-member commission consisting of Senegalese writer and economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy to explore the possibilities of returning the stolen African artefacts. The ‘Savoy-Sarr Report’ submitted by the commission in 2018 unequivocally suggested that African artefacts should be returned to Africa. The report had also suggested that returning of those objects should be followed by ‘information gathering, research, scientific exchange and training in the next five years’. Macron’s speech and the Savoy-Sarr report had touched upon an issue long simmering in the minds of African citizens, historians, civil society groups and political leaders.
During the process of colonisation of Africa, all colonial powers including Belgium and Germany forcibly took away a large number of African art and objects. These included precious statues, palace doors, paintings, thrones and plaques. Colonial armies and administrators were engaged in the plundering of these objects. For example, in 1897, the British army looted the statues and plaques from the Kingdom of Benin, which is now part of modern-day Nigeria. These objects, known as ‘Benin Bronzes’, are now part of the British Museum in London. Similarly, in 1892, French forces looted the royal city of Abomey in present-day Benin. Apparently, stolen objects form the significant part of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris. Moreover, some of these objects are part of private collections of European citizens.
By some estimates, 90-95 percent of African artefacts are outside the continent of Africa and most of these objects are in Europe. About 90,000 African items are in France and the British Museum alone has 73,000 objects from Sub-Saharan Africa. In the case of Belgium, the Royal Museum for Central Africa houses about 180,000 African artefacts. African art is not housed only in former European colonial powers. In Austria, a country which never colonised Africa, Weltmuseum carries 37,000 African items. These numbers demonstrate the extent of plunder as well as their skewed geographical concentration. Therefore, the movement to compel European countries to return African objects is getting traction within the continent. Influential voices including the heads of states like President of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) Felix Tsishekedi have openly argued for the return of these artefacts.
However, despite Macron’s speech and the Savoy-Sarr report, not much has changed in the case of actual restitution of African artefacts. Some European museums have shown a willingness to ‘loan’ some of these objects to African countries for a limited period (like 3 to 5 years) with the possibility of extending the lease. However, the issue of the permanent return of these objects remains contested and unresolved. British and French museums cannot break up their collections and in fact need permissions from their respective parliaments for such a return. However, the issue of return of the African artworks will not be easy to resolve. In fact, it was easier to return ‘human remains’ as compared with the return of African artefacts. For example, Germany had returned ‘human remains’ to Namibia in 2018.
This issue of return of African objects and the European reluctance to do so is not just limited to the issue of plunder and its return. It is intimately connected with Africa’s history, cultural heritage and identity. By denying and/or delaying the return of objects to African countries, Europe is denying African countries legitimate ownership over a part of their own history. These artefacts reveal Africa’s glorious civilisation and rich cultural traditions before the arrival of the European colonisers. Return of these objects and their display in African museums would certainly help in connecting Africans with their past, projecting better images of the continent as well as in breaking the myths about the so-called barbarity and cruelty. The continued presence of these objects in European museums also demonstrates that the project of colonialism has not really ended.
It is a fact that many African states lack trained manpower and financial capacity for maintaining museums to house these objects. Therefore, as suggested in the Savoy-Sarr report, European countries could assist African states in training museum staff, sharing knowledge and best practises related to the maintenance of museums and provide necessary financial support. Some efforts have indeed taken place in that direction. New museums are being built in West African cities like Lagos and Benin and European museums will ‘lend’ some artefacts to these museums. There is also an initiative called ‘Benin Dialogue Group’ which consists of several European museums, Royal Court of Benin (Nigeria) and the Nigerian Government. Benin Dialogue Group focuses on working together ‘to establish a museum in Benin City with a rotation of Benin works of art from a consortium of European museums’. However, these efforts need to be accelerated and multiplied to achieve actual outcomes.
The issue of return of stolen artefacts is relevant in the context of India as well. During the conquest and occupation of India, the British had stolen several valuable artefacts from different parts of the country and many of these artefacts are exhibited in the British museum and art galleries. Independent India has been continuously pushing for the restitution of these artefacts. Recently, British, and American governments have helped India to recover some precious artefacts that were being smuggled. Moreover, Australia had decided to return two idols to India during the visit of Prime Minister Scott Morrison to India in January 2020. However, India’s requests to return Kohinoor diamond and 7.5 feet tall Sultanganj Buddha statue, which were looted by the British, were rejected by the British government. Just like Africa, India is also faced with similar responses of denial, reluctance and grudging co-operation from the European states.
In this regard, it would be instructive to consider and compare the case of plunder of art works by the Nazis and the return of these artefacts. In the 1930s and 1940s, Nazis plundered nearly one-fifth of all European artworks from the conquered countries such as Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, Netherlands and Belgium. The looting was systematic and important for the Third-Reich. It was hard to quantify the extent of loot however the estimated figures are as high as millions of paintings, sculptures and books. Nazis also looted private art collections of many Jewish families. Therefore, the Allies had instituted a separate program called ‘Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives (MFAA) Programme’ to identify the artworks stolen by the Nazis and return them to their rightful owners. During 1945-1951, MFAA officers returned five million artefacts to their rightful owners and yet it was estimated that many more cultural items are yet to be returned.
The European experience stands in stark contrast with that of Asia and Africa. Europeans could manage, largely, to get their stolen artefacts back. Therefore, return of the artefacts from former colonial powers and the management and maintenance of museum is an area where India and African states can collaborate, share their experiences and work together to persuade former colonial powers to return their stolen artefacts. Other Asian countries like Iran and Afghanistan, too, can join hands in these efforts. For post-colonial states, reclaiming their own history and getting their artefacts back is not just about history and culture but is also about identity and politics. Therefore, it is necessary for India and African states to co-operate in different ways in getting these artefacts back.
*Dr. Sankalp Gurjar, Research Fellow, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: Views expressed are personal.
 “Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the University of Ouagadougou”, Élysée, November 28, 2017, at https://www.elysee.fr/emmanuel-macron/2017/11/28/emmanuel-macrons-speech-at-the-university-of-ouagadougou.en (Accessed February 20, 2020)
 Farah Nayeri, “https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/21/arts/design/france-museums-africa-savoy-sarr-report.html (Accessed February 20, 2020)
Naomi Rea, “France Released a Groundbreaking Report on the Restitution of African Art One Year Ago. Has Anything Actually Changed?”, ArtNetnews, December 11, 2019, at https://news.artnet.com/art-world/french-restitution-report-global-1728216 (Accessed February 20, 2020)
5 Lynsey Chutel, “France will have to change its laws to return its looted”, African art, Quartz Africa, November 22, 2018, at https://qz.com/africa/1473023/france-should-return-looted-african-artifacts-says-report/ (Accessed February 20, 2020)
 Sheila Uría Veliz, “Congolese artefacts kept in Belgian Museum must be returned, said DRC President”, The Brussels Times, November 25, 2019, at: https://www.brusselstimes.com/belgium/80154/congolese-artefacts-kept-in-belgian-museum-must-be-returned-said-drc-president/
 “Statement from Benin Dialogue Group”, Museum Volkenkunde, October 19, 2018 at https://www.volkenkunde.nl/en/about-volkenkunde/press/statement-benin-dialogue-group-0 (Accessed February 20, 2020)
 For more on this, see: Aarefa Johri, “Not just the Kohinoor: Four other artefacts that India wants Britain to return”, Scroll.in, April 22, 2016, at: https://scroll.in/article/807006/not-just-the-kohinoor-four-other-artefacts-that-india-wants-britain-to-return (Accessed February 20, 2020)
Jaya Menon, “UK returns two stolen artifacts, including one from Tamil Nadu, to India”, The Times of India, August 16, 2019, at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/articleshow/70693775.cms?utm_source=contentofinterest&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=cppst (Accessed February 20, 2020)
 “Australian PM to return three National Gallery idols stolen from India”, The Hindu, November 27, 2019, at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/australia-prime-minister-to-return-three-idols-from-national-gallery-to-india/article30096924.ece (Accessed February 20, 2020)
PTI, “Can't return Kohinoor diamond to India: Britain”, The Hindu, June 4, 2010, at: https://www.thehindu.com/news/international/Cant-return-Kohinoor-diamond-to-India-Britain/article16240926.ece (Accessed February 20, 2020)
 Sophie Gilbert, “The Persistent Crime of Nazi-looted Art”, The Atlantic, March 11, 2018, at: https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/03/cornelius-gurlitt-nazi-looted-art/554936/ (Accessed March 6, 2020)
 In 2014, a beautiful film, called ‘The Monuments Men’ was released about the MFAA officers and their difficult mission. It starred leading Hollywood actors such as George Clooney and Matt Demon. See: Ben Child, “George Clooney’s The Monuments Men leaves the critics stone cold”, The Guardian, January 30, 2014, at: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2014/jan/30/monuments-men-leaves-critics-stone-cold (Accessed March 6, 2020)
 Robert M. Poole, “Monumental Mission”, Smithsonian Magazine, February 2008, at: https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/monumental-mission-16753884/ (accessed March 6, 2020)