The Vieille Charité building in Marseille, which houses the Museum of African, Oceanic, and Amerindian Arts (photo by Fred Romero via Flickr)

Four activists who removed an ivory ceremonial spear from a Marseille museum this summer in a symbolic act of cultural repatriation have been acquitted of theft charges, reports the local paper La Marseillaise.

“We are part of a process of recovering looted heritage,” said the Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza in court. He also condemned “the cloak of silence that suffocates this tragedy which has struck the people of Africa and all people who are oppressed.”

The four members of the Multicultural Anti-Spoliation Front (Front multiculturel anti-spoliation, FMAS) were on trial for an action they staged at the city’s Museum of African, Oceanic, and Amerindian Arts on July 30. As part of the demonstration, similar to others carried out by Diyabanza in several European museums, he lifted a ceremonial spear from its display and carried it to the courtyard.

Diyabanza proceeded to give a speech denouncing the pillage of African cultural heritage by French colonial forces. His lecture was live-streamed on the group’s Facebook page before police arrived at the scene and the spear was returned to the museum without resistance.

French prosecutor Nicolas Ruby argued in court that the activists should be punished with at least four to eight months of prison time in order to prevent future interventions. “Otherwise,” he said, “we will see the Italians coming to the Louvre to take back [Veronese’s] The Wedding Feast at Cana or the Egyptians the mummies.”

The lawyers for the defense, however, made a successful case for the action as an act of free speech, not theft. They invoked French president Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 promise to restitute African artworks and artifacts held in France’s museums within five years, legitimizing the activists’ motives for staging the demonstration.

“Here, they are protagonists who are sensitive to the cause and are posing questions in museums,” said one of the lawyers, Olivia Betoe Bi Evie. “Their militant and political action is part of their right to protest.”

Lawyer Me Mbeko Tabula also emphasized the peaceful nature of the defendants’ actions and their willingness to return the spear to authorities. “I’ve never had to defend thieves like that,” he said. “Do you know any thieves who wait for the police?”

“The prosecution only sees thieves,” he added. “I see political militants.”

Ruby immediately appealed the acquittal. In October, Diyabanza was fined €1,000 (~$1,186) for removing a 19th-century funerary post from its display at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, and is due to appear in court again in December for a different action he staged at the Louvre last month.

Valentina Di Liscia is the News Editor at Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...