This month, France and the Netherlands took significant steps toward the restitution of looted colonial artifacts. In the Netherlands, the Dutch minister of culture promised policy changes in response to an official report recommending the restitution of stolen cultural property to former Dutch colonies. And in France, two years after a government-commissioned report called for sweeping restitution, the French legislature unanimously passed a landmark bill that would allow for the return of 27 important looted artifacts to Benin and Senegal.
In 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron publicly promised that the country would return all looted artifacts to sub-Saharan Africa within five years. Macron’s pledge, and the 252-page restitution report that followed, were at odds with French laws and attitudes regarding the inalienability of the country’s cultural property. Since then, nothing has technically been restituted, though a looted saber formerly belonging to 19th-century spiritual and political leader Omar Saïdou Tall was given to Senegal on a long-term loan.
The bill, which the French government fast-tracked in July, was unanimously approved by the National Assembly on October 6 and then by the Senate on November 4. The new law will enable the return of the sword to Senegal. It will also allow for the permanent return of 26 cultural objects from the Treasure of Behanzin, important royal artifacts that were looted from the Abomey Palace in modern-day Benin in the 19th century. The select objects will be restituted within one year. The Senate additionally advocated for the formation of a national council dedicated to future restitution cases.
While some fear that the ruling will undermine the inalienability of French collections, a Senate report characterized the bill as having a “strictly exceptional, ad hoc and limited character” unlike the Sarr-Savoy Report. Prior to the passage of the bill, Benin President Patrice Talon expressed to the magazine Jeune Afrique that the small-scale bill is the “strict minimum” and that more comprehensive restitution law is needed.
In the Netherlands, one day after the draft law passed through the French National Assembly, a special advisory committee on the national policy framework for colonial collections released a report commissioned by Dutch culture minister Ingrid van Engelshoven. The account was a yearlong undertaking spearheaded by human rights activist and lawyer Lilian Gonçalves-Ho Kang You. It advised that the Netherlands recognize the injustices of owning stolen artifacts and unconditionally return “any cultural objects looted in former Dutch colonies if the source country so requests.”
The specific objectives laid out in the report include collaborating with former Dutch territories on restitution policy plans to avoid a “neo-colonial mindset”; establishing a dedicated center for provenance research on colonial cultural objects; and supporting the growth of museum infrastructure in former Dutch colonies through initiatives including student internships, staff training, and joint research projects. The committee also suggested that the Netherlands “consider” restitution requests made by countries colonized by other European powers, as well as restitution claims made for objects that were not necessarily taken forcibly but hold special cultural significance for their communities of origin.
The Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and the National Museum of World Cultures (NMvW) — an umbrella organization that includes the Museum Volkenkunde in Leiden, the Afrika Museum in Berg en Dal, and the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam — were already conducting targeted provenance research when the report was released. Both organizations expressed support for the recommendation to make returns. “We hope that this advice will be converted into policy in the short term,” said Stijn Schoonderwoerd, Director of the NMvW.
In an emailed statement, Ingrid van Engelshoven said that the recommendations issued by the report offer a “clear starting point for a new approach to colonial collections.” She continued, “From this starting point, I will be working on a new policy together with the cabinet in the coming period, carefully and in equal cooperation with the countries of origin. We aim to provide a comprehensive policy response to the advice in early 2021.” The Netherlands does not share France’s strict laws regarding the inalienability of national collections, which may aid the country in avoiding major stalemates as it navigates the quagmire of national restitution policy.
Editor’s note 11/11/20 4:35pm EST: An earlier version of this article mistakenly identified the 26 objects being returned to Benin as Benin bronzes. However, the objects being repatriated are royal artifacts looted from the Abomey Palace during the 19th century.