By Clara Cassan.

In 1885, The General Act that emerged from the Berlin conference read as follows: “The Signatory Powers exercising sovereign rights or authority in African territories will continue to watch over the preservation of the native populations and to supervise the improvement of the conditions of their moral and material well-being” (Article 11).[i] The text was signed by the United States and thirteen European nations, including France, with the intention of “protecting” African countries and enabling free trade and transit through the continent. Its language gives us a clear illustration of colonization, one’s appropriation of a place without its owner’s consent, which, more simply, can also be defined as theft. The conference gave way to the division Africa endured until the 1970s. France acquired Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, most of the northern Sub Saharan countries, and Madagascar.

Amongst European material appropriations were artworks and sacred objects of various African communities. French colonizers imported these acquisitions to France and slowly integrated them into their national collections. Some objects entered the Louvre Museum, while others reflecting “the history of manners and customs” of colonized countries were placed in the newly created musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro, near the Eiffel Tower. As these importations scattered across France, the government organized “colonial exhibitions,” attracting tourism and contributing to the country’s growing economy. Paris consequently experienced the birth and expansion of specialized institutions, starting with the Colonial Museum in 1931. Today’s Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, in Paris, is a concentration of 70,000 Sub Saharan African treasures, which represent about two-thirds of the African objects still held in France. Most of the institution’s artworks originate from Tchad, Madagascar, Mali, and Benin.

Part of the Musée d’Ethnographie du Trocadéro’s exhibition on French-colonial artworks, 1931. © Musée du Quai Branly

In November 2017, French President Emmanuel Macron undertook his first political visit to several African countries since the beginning of his mandate. His tour began in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, where he gave a speech at the University of Ouagadougou[ii] that planted the seeds for what is now one of France’s most sensitive cultural topics. On November 23rd of that year, Macron expressed his desire for the temporary or permanent restitution of African cultural heritage throughout the next five years. Back then, this sounded like mere political politeness; but only a few months after his address to Sub-Saharan Africa, Macron commissioned a report, today known as the Sarr-Savoy Report, from academics and researchers Bénédicte Savoy and Felwine Sarr to implement the return of thousands of artworks. It was published on November 21, 2018, and two days later, Macron announced that Benin’s 2016 restitution requests would be promptly answered with the return of 26 artworks that have been in France since the colonial period. Director of the Fondation Zinsou for Contemporary Art in Cotonou, Marie-Cécile Zinsou, hopes for a rebalancing of African art’s presence across the world so that, she says, Benin is not the only place in the world that does not hold Beninese objects.[iii]

The Report

The Sarr-Savoy Report On the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, Toward a New Relational Ethics[iv] is a 252-page bilateral agreement between France and certain African countries. The document is divided into three main parts: (1) To Restitute, (2) Restitutions and Collections, and (3) Accompanying Returns.


Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy at the Collège de France in Paris, on March 21, 2018. © Alain Jocard/AFP

The second part, “Restitutions and Collections”, draws a three-step process towards effective restitutions. The first phase was launched on the report’s publication date and asks French public museums to create thorough inventories of all the Sub Saharan artworks they possess, in the hopes of reaching as much transparency as possible. These lists will then be sent to the relevant African countries. A lack of response from one of these countries will be read as an unwillingness to collaborate. By Spring 2019, these inventories should be completed and publicly accessible online. Thirdly, starting November 2022, France will be returning all claimed artworks.

Effects on the Law of Inalienability

The Report sparked defensive criticism from Western countries. One fear was that the Report’s implementation might entail modifying the French Code of Heritage and, more specifically, limit the principle that has protected its public domain for nearly five hundred years. The inalienability rule in question was originally written to protect the French crown’s property. It was temporarily overruled under the French Revolution and resurged in the 19th century. The law still fully applies today, preventing individuals and other countries from taking possession of public goods and monuments. The former Minister of Foreign Affairs, Jean-Marc Ayrault, relied on this old principle to avoid Benin’s first requests in 2006. Part 3 of The Sarr-Savoy Report finds different ways to skirt this sacrosanct law. It recalls this text was solely meant to protect national property and notes that the African objects in question never belonged to France and, thus, were never a part of its national heritage. The authors also suggest using the “law of exception” that was brandished in 2010 to return 16 Maori heads to New Zealand, after a vote by the French legislature.

Foreign Governments’ Response

European governments expressed another, more practical fear. If African goods were returned, what was to become of their collections? Would the Musée du Quai Branly be reduced to empty shelves? France’s former Minister of Culture, Jean-Jacques Aillagon, shared this concern in an op-ed for Le Figaro, calling the Report “a manifesto, built on the assumptions and involvement of the authors, leaving hardly any place for contradiction.” Of course, the Report never suggests such a drastic solution. The point is to reach a healthier balance between both continent’s possessions and to move forward in their political and cultural relations.

Sarr and Savoy’s call for transparency from public institutions will also help identify which objects were stolen, bought, or acquired during colonization. These stages will avoid unnecessarily emptying the Musée du Quai Branly, for example. Unfortunately, even if an entity is found to hold illegitimate artworks, it will not be legally forced to return it. International conventions such as UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transport of Ownership of Cultural Property[vi] only apply to circulations post-1970. Acts performed during colonization are long prescribed. Despite potential legal modifications, the international community will have to rely on the country’s ethics and good faith. Though the report has no legal force at the moment, it has laid out practical solutions that can hardly be ignored. In an interview with the Swiss media[vii], lawyer and Director of The Art-Law Centre in Geneva, Marc-André Renold, said President Macron’s strong diplomatic commitment towards certain African countries would likely pressure him into modifying French law in light of Sarr and Savoy’s suggestions.

The Art World’s Response

Part of the art world sees European museums as the proper environment for “universal exhibits.” They argue that Africa’s objects will be best preserved and admired in institutions with greater means. Yet, a country’s ability to welcome its own heritage should be measured by the country itself. The African continent has over 500 museums that are still waiting to be heard. Keeping the litigious artworks locked in Europe would only maintain the infantilization Africa has been a victim of.

Museum directors also responded to the Report and raise the issue that French museums are primarily government-owned. By contrast, US museums are privately owned and answer to boards and trustees. However, the Report still reinforces how museums and their directors must be transparent about the nature and origins of the collections.

Nonetheless, Alexandre Giquello, a primitive art expert at French auction house Binoche et Giquello, finds the report reflects a misconception of the art market[viii]. He explains that auction houses and art dealers want to avoid the circulation of looted, stolen, or suspicious works at all costs. According to him, ninety percent of African goods were acquired through regular and barter sales, donations, or exchanges during the colonization era. In his address to Burkina Faso, Macron had talked about the possibility of “temporary restitutions” of Africa’s heritage, as if to promise skeptical European actors, like Mr. Giquello, that France will not be infinitely deprived of these works. The expression sounds absurd, but the applicability of proper restitutions in this case is also debatable. The notion of restitution implies returning an object to its legitimate owner. However, as Nigerian-American artist Toyin Ojih Odutola recently explained to The New York Times, the artworks will not necessarily be returning to where they came from simply because their provenance is not always identifiable.[ix] Territorial reconfigurations gave way to untracked commerce, which will only complicate future restitution ambitions. Instead of entirely brushing off the idea of “temporary restitutions,” the Report finds a middle ground by embracing it as a transitory solution until legal dispositions are enacted to enable definitive returns to Africa.

Against this backlash, Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy spoke up to say that their ideas have been oversimplified and that the media are inciting fears. With the yellow-jacket movements still taking place in France, accusations aimed at the President include his unreliability and detachment from life’s daily realities. However, on the subject of art restitutions, Macron has been surprisingly efficient and is the first Western President to put his foot in the door of a public and risky issue. Actual advancements will now depend upon African countries’ willingness to cooperate and take possession of their – or their neighboring countries’ – heritage. Whatever the outcome, Macron’s actions are unveiling political relations from anachronistic masks.


[i] General Act of the Berlin Conference on West Africa, 26 February 1885. Available here.

[ii] Emmanuel Macron’s speech at the University of Ouagadougou on November 28, 2017. Text and video available here.

[iii] Catherine Frammery, “Faudra-t-il un jour vider les musées suisses?”, Le Temps, December 6, 2018. Available here.

[iv] The Sarr-Savoy Report On the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage, Toward a New Relational Ethics. Full text available here.

[v] Alexandre Edip, “DÉBAT : LA FRANCE DOIT-ELLE RESTITUER SES OEUVRES À L’AFRIQUE ?”, Capital, Polémik Section (November 28, 2018). Article available here.

[vi] Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property 1970. Full text available here.

[vii] Sylvie Lambelet, “Un rapport français incite à la restitution du patrimoine africain”, RTS Culture Radio Interview and Article (November 27, 2018). Interview and article available here.

[viii] Culturebox, “Rapport Savoy-Sarr: un plan en 3 phases pour la restitution de 90.000 objets africains présents dans les musées français”, FranceTV Info (November 23, 2018). Interview available here.

[ix] Jason Farago, “Artwork Taken From Africa, Returning to a Home Transformed”, The New York Times, Art & Design Section (January 3, 2019). Full article available here.[

[x] Id.

Further readings:

Kate Brown, “‘The Idea Is Not to Empty Museums’: Authors of France’s Blockbuster Restitution Report Say Their Work Has Been Misrepresented”, Artnet News (January 24, 2019). Available here.

Selected press articles here.

About the Author: Clara Cassan is French-American. She holds a graduate degree in European Intellectual PropertyLaw and Art History from Paris I, Sorbonne University. She began an LL.M degree at Fordham University in Intellectual Property and Information Technology Law in January 2019, after working as an intern with Cahill, Cossu, Noh & Robinson, LLP.