On April 27, France issued a long-awaited report on repatriation. French President Emmanuel Macron commissioned ex-Director of the Louvre Museum Jean-Luc Martinez to create the document in 2021, the same year Martinez stepped down from his post at the Paris institution. Since then, it has come to light that the Louvre’s Abu Dhabi outpost was embroiled in the infamous looting ring that smuggled objects into major collectors and institutions, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Martinez has been charged with complicity in fraud and concealing the artworks’ origins, and the Paris Court of Appeal upheld the charges as recently as February 2023.
While the 85-page document posits a host of seemingly common-sense suggestions, it marks an important step because France does not have a legal framework that allows its national collections to deaccession objects. Hyper-specific laws must be passed in order for artworks to be repatriated. The United Kingdom has similar rules — for example, a law would need to be passed to allow the hotly debated Parthenon Marbles to go back to Greece.
In 2017, Macron made a groundbreaking promise to create a framework for the permanent or temporary restitution of African patrimony within five years. Macron commissioned Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy to create a 2018 report on the subject. Two years later, France passed a law that allowed 27 objects to be returned to Benin and Senegal. Now in 2023, those artworks and a 19th-century Senegalese saber are the only ones to have been repatriated since Macron made his grand promise.
Martinez’s new report recommends the creation of wide-reaching doctrines to allow for the repatriation of three types of artworks: cultural heritage, human remains, and objects looted in the Nazi era. It notes that repatriation has historically been used as a diplomatic tool and instead calls for an objective framework. It also suggests the notion of a “cultural partnership” that does not necessarily establish legal ownership, but rather, the movement of objects between their countries of origin and France.
The report recommends a three-year time limit from the date of request to the ultimate return and outlines eligibility requirements. For example, a request must pinpoint a specific work; the object must not be claimed by another nation and the request cannot be accompanied by a request for monetary reparations.
The document also mandates the repatriation of objects obtained under duress — either during wartime or during the Nazi occupation — and urges museums to examine their collections to identify these works.
Notably, the report explicitly outlines what constitutes a valid request for the return of human remains. The identity of the person must be known and that person must have died after the year 1500, the document states, arguing that beyond that year “we all have the same ancestors,” a citation by the President of France’s National Museum of Natural History, Bruno David.
The document calls for the creation of an Africa-Europe fund to focus specifically on the subject of African cultural heritage but suggests that the new legal framework extends beyond the scope of France and its former colonies in Africa. However, the report makes specific mention of these nations, and includes a section detailing how countries may differ in their repatriation requests and how ongoing wars in those nations could delay repatriation.
Around 90% of African cultural heritage objects are estimated to be in Europe. The Quai Branly Museum in Paris holds at least 70,000 works from sub-Saharan Africa alone.