An auction of African artifacts in Nantes, France last year was partially canceled following an intervention by Pan-African activists protesting the sale of their cultural patrimony. In a deal closed after the auction, 27 objects withheld from the sale were acquired by a group of French dealers led by the Paris-based gallerist Robert Vallois and donated to the Petit Musée de la Récade in Benin, a museum Vallois and his colleagues helped found.
The transaction illuminates the role individuals can play in rectifying Europe’s history of colonial plunder, especially given glaring government inaction — but it also reveals the inner workings of a system that allows such objects to land in private hands to begin with.
“At a time when negotiations are being made to support restitution, it doesn’t make sense for artifacts that were stolen from Africa to be sold in an auction and consequently scattered,” said Thomas Bouli, president of Afrique Loire and principal organizer of the protests against the sale, in a video interview. French museums have been compelled to amp up restitution efforts after a historic report commissioned by President Macron in 2018 recommended that institutions return all objects illegally procured from former African colonies. According to the report, 90 to 95 percent of Africa’s cultural heritage resides outside of Africa, in major museums.
The objects in question were looted from the African kingdom of Danhomé (located in present-day southern Benin) by the French during a military expedition in the 19th century and resided in private collections in France until they were offered at the Nantes-based auction house Salorges Enchères in March 2019.
In the weeks prior, Bouli had contacted the ambassadors of several African countries represented in the auction to alert them of the forthcoming sale, but only the embassy of the Republic of Benin reacted in time for the French Ministry of Culture to recommend a ban. “All the other countries had their artifacts sold at auction and therefore scattered,” said Bouli in a phone call with Hyperallergic.
On the day of the sale, a group of protesters approached the auctioneer and proceeded to carry out an unprecedented, hour-long public debate in the salesroom to discuss the reasons for restituting, rather than selling, pillaged cultural patrimony.
The 27 Beninese objects were subsequently removed from the auction and offered to Benin for purchase at a total price of €24,000 (~$26,426), but the country declined the transaction. In an impromptu solution, Vallois and dealers Bernard Dulon, Alain de Monbrison, and Didier Claes, who founded the Petit Musée de la Récade in the district of Lobozounkpa in 2015, proposed to purchase the objects for the museum’s collection.
“The government of Benin came to an agreement whereby the dealers would act as ‘sponsors,’” Bouli told Hyperallergic. “The objects weren’t restituted, they were purchased.”
The artifacts acquired by Vallois and his team include objects of worship belonging to the Fon people and récades, ceremonial staffs. Récades — or makpo (“sticks of fury”), as they are known in Fon — were one of the symbols of royal power in Danhomé from the 17th through the end of the 19th century, when Benin was absorbed into the French colonial empire. Bouli criticized the auction house’s presentation of the sale as comprising mostly weapons lacking any cult value: “That’s false,” he told RFI at the time. “Around 40 of the 300-some lots are cult objects. Why lie?”
But Yves-Bernard Debie, a Brussels-based lawyer who assisted the dealers, believes Bouli and Africa Loire’s efforts were misguided. In a caustic article for the Autumn 2019 issue of Tribal Art Magazine, Debie says the protesters’ efforts were “untimely and pointless,” writing that Vallois had planned to purchase and donate the works to his museum long before the objects were removed from the sale. He also states that no applicable legal statue in France forbids the sale of tribal artworks, “even if they were collected in the course of a colonial military campaign,” and describes Afrique Loire as “an obscure association that is pleased to find itself suddenly in the spotlight.”
The protests surrounding the auction and the dealers’ improvised solution to sponsor the repatriation of Benin’s artifacts complicate the already labyrinthine landscape of restitution. Some believe returning cultural heritage to Africa only scratches the surface of the reparations France should undertake to begin acknowledging and atoning for centuries of colonialism.
“Maybe for you restitution is a noble gesture that sets you apart from your predecessors,” wrote the Malian scholar and filmmaker Manthia Diawara in a letter to President Macron published by Hyperallergic. “But for me, Mr. President, restitution must come after reparations for the still ongoing pillage and despoliation by Europe and other foreign powers of Africa’s material and natural resources.”
Afrique Loire, Bouli’s organization, is planning an international colloquium in September to foment dialogue between African and European nations. “Our project is more global than restitution and also aims to valorize different types of patrimony,” Bouli told Hyperallergic. “The restitution agenda that was introduced by France has been stalled, and African countries have reached their limits.” The group is also working to establish a “provisional museum” in France that could receive, house, and highlight the importance of objects taken during the colonial period as they await their definitive return to Africa.