Africa’s Stolen Art Debate Is Frozen in Time

16 May 2022

Visitors view the Benin Bronzes exhibit at the British Museum in London on Feb. 13, 2020. DAVID CLIFF/LIGHTROCKET VIA GETTY IMAGES

By Nosmot Gbadamosi, a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. Originally published FP May 15 2022.

As a result of violent plunder over the centuries, Europe—more than any other region in the world, including Africa—holds the largest collection of ancient African artifacts. The total number of African objects in museums across the United States barely reaches 50,000. Yet Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa alone has 180,000 objects, Germany’s Ethnological Museum has 75,000, France’s Quai Branly Museum has almost 70,000, the British Museum has 73,000 from Africa, and the Netherlands’ National Museum of World Cultures has 66,000.

It has been 50 years since African governments, against a backdrop of hard-fought independence, started asking for the return of looted objects. Despite celebratory press coverage on returns and Western curators’ recent commitments to decolonize museums, very few items have been physically repatriated. In February, Nigeria welcomed back to Benin City just two statues out of more than 3,000 Benin Bronzes—a collection of sacred works made from ivory, bronze, and wood—still held mostly in Europe.

Western institutions’ rebuttal against timely restitution has essentially boiled down to two components: Western museums, they claim, must both conduct lengthy provenance research to prove items were indeed stolen and determine whether African museums can preserve their own artifacts—notwithstanding the fact that those relics survived for centuries in Africa before they were looted.

But what if these claims, first put forward by museum officials in the 1970s and leaned on even more vehemently today, are part of a troubling historical approach to bury demands, delay the process, and lead to Africans’ capitulation? This is the argument French art historian Bénédicte Savoy puts forth in her newly translated book, Africa’s Struggle for Its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat—first published in German last year and now in English—a fascinating account of lies and disinformation from European institutions in the debate against restitution.

In examining old correspondence between government officials and museum administrators and the minutes of museum meetings, Savoy uncovers a discourse around restitution that is frozen in time. Scenes like the infamous opening sequence of Marvel’s Black Panther, and recent popular videos of Congolese activist Mwazulu Diyabanza unsuccessfully attempting to take back looted African artworks from European museums, “had already been scripted in many minds by the mid-1970s,” Savoy writes. “Nearly every conversation today about the restitution of cultural property to Africa already happened forty years ago.”

Untitled af.png
Left: Sarafadeen Tunji Isola, Nigeria’s high commissioner to the United Kingdom, (left) and Ewuare II, Oba of Benin, king of the Edo people, receive repatriated artifacts that were looted from Nigeria more than 125 years ago by the British military in Ben

In October 2021, Abuja sent an official request to the British Museum for the return of all Nigerian artifacts looted during colonial rule. This was nothing groundbreaking—Nigeria alone has sent many requests to Western museums over the years, all received with silent indifference.

The first representative of an African government to take up the fight for restitution was Ekpo Eyo, a renowned Nigerian archaeologist and the head of Nigeria’s Federal Department of Antiquities. In 1972, Eyo sent a circular to several European embassies requesting “some” permanent loans of Benin Bronzes. Even such a “modest loan request,” Savoy writes, sparked panic among officials who feared a “radical emptying” of Western museums.

In response, Hans-Georg Wormit, the president of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation and a former Nazi, said Berlin’s holdings were legally bought, failing to mention that they had originally been violently looted during the sacking of the Benin Kingdom by British soldiers in 1897.

Despite claims to the contrary, Savoy writes, Europe’s museum administrators “knew perfectly well that the great majority of the African objects in their collections stemmed from the colonial era.” After all, most European institutions, especially in Germany, have long held detailed catalogues and inventory lists. (And, as German explorer Richard Kandt wrote to the director of Berlin’s Ethnological Museum in 1897, it was “quite difficult to obtain an object without using at least a little bit of force.”)

The Museum of Ethnology in Vienna followed suit, with the Viennese Ministry of Economics and Research responding that the museum’s collection had been “acquired entirely legally,” Savoy writes, and that a return was out of the question: “It would be better if Nigerian scholars came to Vienna to do research directly in the museum; related costs, however, would need to be borne by international scholarships.” Stephan Waetzoldt, then-director general of the Berlin State Museums, later wrote that “it is indeed difficult to adopt rational arguments to confront, in my view, the absurd demand for the return of practically the entire collection holdings which come from the Third World.

Untitled af2.png
Protesters demonstrate for the return of African sculptures in front of the Reichstag, housing the German federal parliament, in Berlin on July 10, 2021. ADAM BERRY/GETTY IMAGES

After West Germany’s Foreign Office decided it would not support Nigeria’s loan request, Wormit noted with satisfaction to Waetzoldt, “We can probably regard this matter as closed.”

A year later, in 1973, Mobutu Sese Seko, then-president of Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo), spoke on the floor of the United Nations and denounced the “barbarous, systematic pillaging” of Africa’s artistic heritage. A draft resolution put forward by Mobutu and signed by 12 African countries was rejected by Western countries at the U.N. General Assembly on the grounds that it used the term “restitution,” which had “strong moral connotations,” Savoy writes.

Despite this, the U.N. General Assembly subsequently adopted a resolution on restitution that attempted to set a blueprint for how governments should respond to restitution claims. The resolution, which stated that restitution should be handled by countries that gained access to cultural property “only as a result of colonial or foreign occupation,” triggered a heated global debate.

Congo and Ghana then followed Nigeria’s lead in making official claims to former colonial powers—although Ghana, in contrast, demanded full restitution of objects from Britain instead of a loan. Its demands were debated in the House of Lords, where Scottish Labour Party member Baroness Lee of Asheridge warned that “returning booty” to Ghana could turn into a “striptease” of British institutions.

European museum officials’ response to those requests, Savoy shows, was “shameful.” Friedrich Kussmaul, the director of Stuttgart’s Linden Museum, was a particularly brazen offender. Following the passing of the U.N. resolution on restitution, he wrote that African staff were “hardly sufficiently educated” to upkeep a modern museum “and unfortunately in many cases rather susceptible to corruption.” Kussmaul, who had never been to Africa, waged a successful offensive based on rumors and fabricated intelligence. He claimed that he had been in contact with a dealer who wanted to sell him West African artworks originally in the Dresden Museum of Ethnology that were now in Bamako, Mali, implying that restituted objects were being sold back to Europe via the underground market.

Throughout the book, Savoy subtly debunks the idea, often repeated by commentators, that Africans cannot look after their own art. For instance, in citing research that shows no restitution took place from Germany to Mali in the 1970s, she effectively proves that the pieces offered to Kussmaul must have come from within Germany.

Among other things, Kussmaul also accused the Nigerian government of having resold a Benin mask for a “multimillion sum,” prompting an angry response from Lagos (then Nigeria’s capital), which called the statement a “complete fabrication” and urged Kussmaul to practice better museum ethics through a “more scholarly approach to provenance information.”

Despite this, African claims had “hardly any legal or moral foundation,” Kussmaul contended, and in his words, the independence movement had created among Africans a “sometimes exaggerated sense of one’s own dignity, achievements, tradition.” Even as museum directors believed in the progressive role their collections played toward showcasing a “universal” heritage, Savoy writes, ideas of racial and civilizational hierarchy clearly permeated their thinking.

Years of fruitless diplomatic exchanges made African leaders ever more determined to make their demands public. In 1977, oil-rich Nigeria staged the Second World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture in Lagos, headlined by some of the world’s biggest musicians, including Stevie Wonder. For the festival, Nigeria requested to showcase the Queen Idia mask, an ivory pendant from the 16th-century Benin Kingdom at the British Museum, but Britain refused, claiming the piece was too fragile to travel.

Festival pamphlets served as a direct public statement: Even the most basic information flyer carried an emblem of the mask, the event’s official logo, accompanied by a note describing Nigeria’s iconic stolen object. “[O]ne of the finest examples of known African and black art … now rests in the British Museum,” the text stated.

Around the same time, Eyo wrote many letters—recently released by Britain’s foreign office—asking for loans from the British Museum. As negotiations proved increasingly futile, Nigeria started to purchase back its own objects at auction. In June 1980, Eyo bought several Benin objects at Sotheby’s in London for half a million pounds, causing a stir in London and in Lagos; in response, journalist and actor Gordon Tialobi wrote in the Nigerian newspaper Punch that the descendants of British soldiers still lived on “the proceeds of their fathers’ shameless acts of terrorism.”

In the early 1980s, Eyo organized an impressive exhibition called “Treasures of Ancient Nigeria,” which toured Europe and the United States. The exhibition, New York Times art critic John Russell wrote, had “peculiar poignancy from the fact that Nigeria here speaks for itself.” It served as an undeniable answer to the racialized narrative of whether Nigeria could manage its own cultural heritage, even if the West wouldn’t listen.

A visitor views art at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, where almost 70,000 pieces originating from Africa are held, on March 15, 2018. LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Savoy’s deeply researched book marks a shift in tone from the many articles written recently on the African restitution debate, and particularly on Nigeria, that erase African voices, focusing instead on the efforts of European intellectuals in making a case for restitution and the question of whether Europe will act.

In Africa’s Struggle for Its Art, Savoy chooses to focus, as the title suggests, on African scholars detailing with painstaking historical accuracy the near-forgotten essays, speeches, and unanswered letters of African governments in their fight for the return of stolen heritage. Savoy’s book is particularly relevant to the 70 percent of Africans who were born decades after those initial efforts. In her telling, Africans were—and still are—at the forefront of their own fight for restitution.

As they did in the past, museum curators today profess an enthusiastic willingness to engage in dialogue while simultaneously blocking the demands of African countries. The University of Oxford’s Pitts Rivers Museum, for example, presents itself as a world leader in the restitution debate, since it’s engaged in deep provenance research and hosts the Action for Restitution to Africa program. But it has yet to return any Benin Bronzes or other prized African objects from its own collection. The British Museum has offered to loan back stolen goods but continues to ignore Nigerian letters.

There are small signs of change. One of the world’s largest cultural organizations, the U.S. government’s Smithsonian Institution, has agreed to unconditionally return some of its collection of 39 Benin Bronzes.

Germany, at least, has moved on from the days when museum directors vowed that “all objects in the Prussian Heritage Collection had been acquired legally,” as Savoy writes. Last April, German politicians agreed to return a “substantive” number of Benin Bronzes beginning this year.

Together with Senegalese economist and writer Felwine Sarr, Savoy penned the seminal 2018 restitution report commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron, which urged European museums to return their collections taken “without consent” in the colonial period. That report had groundbreaking repercussions and is partly responsible for some of the returns we are seeing today; the French parliament subsequently passed a bill in December 2020 to return 27 African objects to Senegal and Benin, though Paris has yet to take further action.

Other European governments remain doggedly wedded to their colonial loot. Current British officials continue to deploy anti-restitution rhetoric from the 1970s. David M. Wilson, the director of the British Museum from 1977 to 1992, put it firmly: “Everything we own we received legally.” Similarly, in September 2021, then-British Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden, a stalwart of British nationalism-turned-culture warrior, said the Benin Bronzes “properly reside in the British Museum.”

Amid this resistance, the international community needs to pressure museums worldwide to publish full inventory lists of collections, often hidden in storerooms—something Germany did last year for all the Benin Bronzes in its museums. Importantly, African countries should also step up independent provenance research, such as that being done in Ghana, and create autonomous bodies dedicated to their restitution efforts, such as those established in Nigeria, because these entities need to be free of European influence and meddling.

There is an urgent need to break away from mechanisms historically deployed by museum officials to keep illegally obtained colonial loot in their collections. Past directors who defended their position, Savoy writes, did so due to scholarly nationalism and racial prejudice. As she puts it, on restitution, “[W]e must not shift the responsibility again to our children and grandchildren.” The stories of influential African figures who worked and died longing for restitution should stir the global conscience. For more than 50 years, museum administrators have succeeded in thwarting African claims, and artifacts from Nigeria alone remain not just in large museums but also in private galleries and homes from Mexico to Russia to Thailand. Now, more than ever, museums need to repatriate their ill-gotten African treasures.

Nosmot Gbadamosi is a multimedia journalist and the writer of Foreign Policy’s weekly Africa Brief. She has reported on human rights, the environment, and sustainable development from across the African continent. Twitter: @nosmotg