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On a visit to Burkina Faso last year, Emmanuel Macron promised to repatriate Africa’s plundered artworks. The French president said he would start a process of returning African art and artefacts held in France’s public collections, as part of efforts to reset relations with former colonies. “The crimes of European colonisation are unquestionable,” he said. “It’s a past that needs to pass.”

Just months later, Mr Macron has followed up on his promise by appointing two independent experts, Senegalese economist Felwine Sarr and French art historian Bénédicte Savoy, to draw up a set of recommendations for how to do it.

It is a highly significant move. For the first time, a conversation that is usually held behind the closed doors of museums will be brought into the public gaze, when the two make their report in November. Every western museum with ethnographic holdings will be watching intently. Although guidelines set in France might have no legal sway in other countries, the moral pressure of public opinion will carry weight elsewhere.

Recent French presidents have had close connections to the country’s museums: Georges Pompidou created the groundbreaking Pompidou Centre in the 1970s; his successor, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, oversaw the setting up of the Musée d’Orsay; François Mitterrand marshalled the expansion of the Louvre. Jacques Chirac was passionate about non-European Art. It was his outstanding private collection, and public ambition for ethnographic art, that brought about Paris’s great Quai Branly Museum in 2006. It contains thousands of superb African and Eurasian artworks, and now — perhaps ironically, in view of Mr Macron’s intentions — bears Mr Chirac’s name.

The director of the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum, Stéphane Martin, has in the past told writers he has no intention of becoming an “apology museum”. Once a staunch refusenik of returning art, he has recently sided cautiously with Mr Macron — although he is more in favour of extended loan programmes than full repatriation.

One issue that cannot be dodged is the question of where artefacts might find a safe home, once returned to their countries of origin. Few of Africa’s museums are able to match western conservation standards, and Mr Macron’s caveat that France would “set the conditions” for repatriation was seen as contentious or condescending by some.

California-based art historian Sylvester Okwunodu Ogbechie told artnet news it was “arrogantly wrong to imagine that France should have the last word on what constitutes safe conditions for managing these artefacts”.

Mr Sarr and Professor Savoy are taking on a job few would envy. Writing the rule book for the return of cultural objects held outside their country of origin involves labyrinthine ethical, legal and practical complexities. Yet the duo could be up to the challenge.

The polymath Mr Sarr, 45, is an academic, economist, novelist, publisher, musician and more. Prof Savoy, also 45, is an outspoken art historian, who resigned in July from her position at Berlin’s Humboldt Forum in protest against insufficient attention paid to the provenance of works from Africa and elsewhere.

“I want to know how much blood is dripping from each artwork,” she told Süddeutsche Zeitung last year.

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Beyond the dramatic rhetoric, Prof Savoy’s comment highlights important problems: with hundreds of thousands of such artworks in western museums, almost every item would have to be assessed case by case. Some — acquired by donation or legacy or purchased legally — might be judged innocent. Others, however, are notorious as spoils of conquest. Many of the magnificent bronzes, plundered from Benin City in 1897 by British troops, reside in the British Museum. Some were sold off and are now in museums across Europe and North America — but remain similarly tainted.

In Britain, a glittering example is soon to come on show. The gold crown of the emperor of Abyssinia (now Ethiopia), seized by British forces in 1868, has lodged since then in the Victoria and Albert Museum — despite requests for its return. It will take pride of place in an April show of Ethiopian treasures at the museum.

Tristram Hunt, the V&A’s director, addressed the problem head-on in a press release: “As custodians of a number of important Ethiopian objects taken from Maqdala by the British military 150 years ago, we have a responsibility to celebrate the beauty of their craftsmanship, reflect on their modern meaning, and shine a light on this collection’s controversial history,” he writes.

Despite working closely with the Ethiopian community in London, and Mr Hunt’s undoubtedly good intentions, he will be lucky to get away without a fight on this one.

This article was originally published by the Financial Times.
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2018.

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