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To whom does art belong?

Göran Collste

African artwork displayed in Paris depicting the Ato ceremony of the Kingdom of Dahomey, circa 1934. Photograph: Gérard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

In a speech in Ouagadougou, capital of Burkina Faso on November 28th 2017, the French president Emmanuel Macron proclaimed “Starting today, and in the next five years, I want to see the conditions put in place so as to allow for the temporary or definitive restitution of African cultural heritage to Africa” To follow up his speech, Macron initiated an investigation of African art in French museums. The aim was to discover the extent of French holdings of African art and find out how it was acquired (Noce 2018a).

The investigation reported the astonishing result that there are approximately 90 000 works of art from Africa in French museums, including 70 000 in the Quai Branly museum in Paris. The art originates from both former French colonies and from other African countries, most from Chad, Cameroon, Madagascar and Mali, with around 6 000 – 9 000 items from each.

The investigation also found that about two-thirds of African art in French museums was acquired before 1960 (that is, during colonial times) and brought to France “without consent”. The report showed that there are approximately 180 000 pieces of African art in the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, and 69 000 in the British Museum. It is estimated that between 90-95% of all African classical art is outside of Africa (Sarr and Savoy 2018).

This investigation suggests some measure of restitution of these items. Not surprisingly, there is an interest in Africa to have access to art that was taken to Europe. Ten years ago, in Benin, a quarter of a million people visited an exhibition of arts from the old kingdom of Abomey, loaned from France.

There have been some very positive responses to Macron’s initiative (Noce 2018b). For example, Senegal’s Minister of art, Abou Latif Coulibaly, has asked that all French holdings of art from Senegal should be returned, and exhibited in the new museum of African art in Dakar. A representative of Ivory Coast has asked that only some pieces of art should be transferred as there is currently insufficient museum space to hold it all.

The new French policy implies a radical change. As late as 2016, France rejected a proposal from Benin for the return of statues that were stolen in 1892. The reason given was that the UNESCO convention of returning stolen art, which was adopted in 1970, could not be applied retrospectively (Sarr and Savoy 2018).

The theft of African art treasuries by the colonial powers is a gigantic and enduring cultural and social catastrophe for Africa. Its cultural heritage, which should have been available to younger generations to learn from and be proud of, was out of reach in European and North American museums.

As expected, Macron’s initiative provoked a mixed reaction. Hartwig Fischer, Director of British Museum, said that while the museum’s trustees were open to all forms of cooperation with African states, “the collections have to be preserved as whole”. By contrast, sixteen federal German Ministers of Culture agreed to create conditions for the restitution of artefacts in public collections that were taken from former colonies “…in ways that are legally or morally unjustifiable today”, describing the repatriation as “an ethical and moral duty” (Hickley 2019).

The winds of change have finally also reached the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Brussels, founded in 1898 by the Belgian king Leopold II. The museum contains 180 000 pieces of art from Africa, in particular from the Congo. When Leopold II governed the Congo as his own private property, the country was devastated through the exploitation of its natural resources and millions of Congolese were mutilated or killed (Hoschchild 1999). Unitl recently, this dark history was almost unremarked in the museum. Following renovation, it opened with a special section devoted to colonial history.

Who owns African art?

As the French investigation shows, much African art in European museums was stolen, or at least transferred to Europe, as the French investigation says, “without consent”. Hence, both the principle that stolen goods should be transferred to the rightful owner and the principle that harm should be redressed, justify a restitution of arts from French and other European museums to Africa (Collste 2015). Furthermore, the question is broader than the whereabouts of the art. As the French investigator Bénédicte Savoy states: “…we are dealing with the case of a continent which has almost nothing left of its history when we have it all. The aim is not to empty Western museums to fill up the African ones, but to invent a new relationship based on ethics and equity."

However, some arguments have been raised against restitution. One could argue that art, as the result of human creativity, belongs to humanity in common. If so, it does not matter were the art is exhibited as long as it is accessible to everyone. For example, the reopened Africa museum in Brussels aims to provide “…a prominent place for African perspectives on the past, present and future…It underpins what it means to be citizens of the world” (Royal Museum, 2019).

The question of ownership of art is indeed complicated. Although art is a universal expression of human creativity, much art is also contextual. It gets its cultural and religious meaning from the cultural context in which it was created. When, for example, art is related to specific religious rituals, it belongs to the religious group that performs these rituals. When this kind of art was transferred to Europe, the implication was a violation of the religious freedom of expression of the locals. Furthermore, even if art were to be regarded as the common property of all mankind, it would follow that, for reasons of distributive justice, it should be universally accessible and not only accessible for Europeans and North Americans.

But are not some African pieces of art in French museums received as gifts from private owners protected by property rights? If we assume, in accordance to a Nozickean theory of property rights, that the original acquisition of a piece of art was fair and that the transfer was the result of a fair agreement, it might be morally wrong to demand restitution (Nozick 1974). However, this argument is based on shaky grounds. The French investigation shows that even art given by private donors has a murky background. As example they take a zoomorphic mask from the Ségou region that was bought for seven Francs, equivalent to the price for a dozen eggs at the time. In this case, the justification for property rights (right acquisition and right transfer) does not hold. Even when works of art were bought one can question the fairness of agreements. Hence, only those works of art that were neither stolen nor in other ways unfairly acquired might be retained.

However, is not the art better protected in European museums? Many of the countries of origin are politically unstable and there is a risk that the museums are plundered and the art destroyed. We know that this happened when both archaeological sites and the National Museum of Iraq were looted in the chaos following the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, and when ISIS destroyed parts of the ancient city of Palmyra in Syria in 2015 and the old town of Mosul in 2017. So, the argument goes, for consequential reasons it is safer that the art stays in European museums. This argument might be correct in certain cases. Then, the art is for loan in Europe as long as the situation in the countries of origin is unstable. However, as soon as stability is restored, the art should be returned. Further, in these cases the European museums as providers of a “world culture” have duties to make the art accessible to countries of origin. The argument is not, however, relevant for the issue of African art in French museums. Most of the countries of origin are stable enough.

The French author Victor Hugo commented in 1861 on the demolition of the Old Summer Palace in Beijing:

Treasures from colonies in Africa, Latin America and Asia are still in the possession of museums in Europe and North America. Perhaps, President Macron’s initiative can be the beginning of the end of European barbarism?


Collste, G., Global Rectificatory Justice, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015

Hickley, C., Culture ministers from 16 German states agree to repatriate artefacts looted in colonial era, The Art Newspaper, 14th March 2019,

Hoschchild, A., King Leopold’s Ghost, Boston, 1999

Hugo, V., The Chinese expedition: Victor Hugo on the sack of the Summer Palace, 1861.

Noce, V. 'Give Africa its art back', Macron's report says, The Art Newspaper, 20th November, 2018a

Noce, V. Senegal and Ivory Coast will ask for return of objects in French museums, The Art Newspaper, 29th November 2018b

Nozick, R. Anarchy, State and Utopia, Oxford 1974,

Royal Museum for Central Africa, Guidebook, Kontich 2019


Figure 1: African artwork displayed in Paris depicting the Ato ceremony of the Kingdom of Dahomey, circa 1934. Photograph: Gérard Julien/AFP/Getty Images

About the author

Göran Collste is Professor emeritus of Applied Ethics at Linköping University. He is the author of Global Rectificatory Justice, Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2015, and Historisk rättvisa: Gottgörelse i en Postkolonial Tid [Historical justice. Rectificatory in a Postcolonian Era], Daidalos 2018.

Disclaimer: Any views or opinions expressed on the Heritage in War blog are those of the post author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of members of the Heritage in War project, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the Open University or Stockholm University.

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