French President Emmanuel Macron agreed on Friday to return 26 works of art to Benin “without delay,” his office said.
The decision came when Macron received the results of a study that had been commissioned to return African treasures held by French museums, a radical policy change that could put pressure on other former colonial powers.
He proposed to bring together African and European partners in Paris next year to define a framework for an “exchange policy” for African works of art.
Macron agreed to return 26 royal statues of the Palais de Abomey, formerly the capital of the kingdom of Dahomey, which were taken by the French army in 1892 and are now in the Quai Branly museum in Paris.
Benin had requested his restitution and, earlier this week, welcomed the fact that France had followed the process to the end.
But Macron’s office said that this should not be an isolated or symbolic case.
The president “hopes that all the possible circulation of these works will be considered: returns but also exhibitions, loans, greater cooperation,” said the Elysée Palace.
The report he received on Friday proposed that legislation be drawn up to return thousands of African works of art taken during the colonial period of the country, now in French museums, to the nations that request them.
However, there are conditions that include a request from the relevant country, precise information about the origins of the works and the existence of adequate facilities, such as museums to house the works in their country of origin.
Macron also wants “museums to play an essential role in this process,” his office said.
They will be invited to “identify African partners and organize possible returns”.
Museums should quickly establish “an online inventory of their African collections” to allow the search for the source of an item, according to the statement.
Macron also called for “an in-depth work with other European states that retain collections of the same nature acquired in comparable circumstances.”
In Africa, requests for the restitution of works of art have increased, but French law strictly prohibits government from giving up state property, even in well-documented cases of looting.
Macron raised hopes in a speech last year in Burkina Faso, saying that “the heritage of Africa can not be alone in private collections and European museums.”
Later he asked the French art historian Benedicte Savoy and the Senegalese writer Felwine Sarr to study the subject.
His report has been well received by the defenders of the restitution of the works that were purchased, exchanged or, in some cases, simply stolen.