Restitution of looted works: a bill in the Senate to avoid “the act of the prince”

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The Beninese and French presidents Patrice Talon and Emmanuel Macron on November 9, 2021 in Paris, formalize the return to Benin with transfer of ownership of 26 works from the Royal Treasures of Abomey looted by French colonial troops in 1892.

After the restitution of El-Hadj Oumar Tall’s saber in Senegal in 2019, that of Queen Ranavalona III’s dais crown in Madagascar in 2020, and the 26 pieces of the Abomey treasure in Benin in November, the return of the Djidji Ayokwe, Ebrié drum speaker, claimed by Côte d’Ivoire, was announced in October. So many opportunities for the Senate to raise the tone on the terms of these restitutions. Wednesday, December 15, the Upper House must examine a bill brought by the senator of Seine-et-Marne, Catherine Morin-Desailly (UDI), to regulate these returns.

Read also In Côte d’Ivoire, the restitution by France of the Ebrié drum, “a historic gesture” hailed by traditional chiefs

“This is not an opposition in principle to the restitution, we do not criticize the substance, but the methodology, advances Laurent Lafon, president of the culture committee in the Senate. We want a balance between diplomatic imperatives and cultural and heritage concerns. Restitution should not be made by the prince. “

The text advocates the creation of a National Council for reflection on the circulation and return of extra-European cultural goods, made up of twelve members responsible for examining any release of works. For Catherine Morin-Desailly, “This consultative body is necessary to transcend political alternations and lead an objectified policy”.

“Extreme diversity of restitutions”

The idea is not new: it had already been raised about the bill to return property to Benin and Senegal. At the time, recalls Pierre Noual, author of Restitution, a political and cultural history (Belopolie, 2021), the principle of creating this Council was withdrawn from the final text. “He risked blurring the diplomatic and political message addressed to African states”, recalls the lawyer.

A National Scientific Commission on Collections was created in 2010 following the return of Maori heads to New Zealand. This body was then in charge of studying requests for declassification of museums so that pieces of heritage can leave their collections. Ineffective for lack of resources, the commission was finally scuttled in 2020 as part of the law on the acceleration and simplification of public action. “Instead of reforming it, cries Catherine Morin-Desailly, the Ministry of Culture got rid of it when a simplified advisory body would have allowed it not to be under the sole cup of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. »

Read also France solemnly returns 26 looted treasures in Benin

Rather than creating a new commission, would it not be better to agree on a framework law on restitution, and thus avoid the multiplication of specific laws which clog Parliament? Not that easy. “How to describe the program and the commitments of all the restitutions by a general content, the modalities of which would have to be defined later, while each case remains unique in the face of the extreme diversity of the restitutions? “, summarizes Pierre Noual. But, specifies the lawyer, these obstacles inherent in a framework law should nevertheless be able to be overcome, the Council of State having moreover been able to recall it recently in connection with the bill of restitution of the works looted by the Nazis. ” It is still necessary, he adds, that a reflection, in particular associating art and legal professionals, be really established. “

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Restitution of looted works: a bill in the Senate to avoid “the act of the prince”