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France gives up a part of looted colonial treasures

France has transferred ownership of 26 royal treasures, including sacred altars and statues, stolen from Benin some 130 years ago back to the African state, as President Emmanuel Macron met his counterpart Patrice Talon in Paris.

On Tuesday, Macron said that he and Talon had signed an agreement earlier in the morning to return the artifacts, with the French president claiming he was “very happy because it is a moment, not only symbolic, but moving and historical.”  

Macron noted that the first repatriation request issued by the Beninese authorities in 2016 had been refused by the French government at the time on the grounds that the treasures were an important part of the country’s public collection. 

The 26 works – plundered by French troops in 1892 during the sacking of the Royal Palaces of Abomey – will leave with Talon on his return to Benin.

Talon thanked Macron for the “symbolic and unexpected” gesture, but made it clear that there was still much that France needed to return. “How do you expect my enthusiasm to be complete” when France still holds other key artifacts, the Beninese leader asked.  

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The artifacts being returned to Benin, including 19th-century thrones, sacred altars, and royal statues, were shown at the Musee du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac in Paris for one last time in late October.

Once back in Benin, the items are to be exhibited at various sites, including at the Museum of History of Ouidah, a former Portuguese fort in the former slave-trading hub. They will eventually be hosted in a museum, part-funded by the French government, in the city of Abomey.   

An inquiry commissioned by Macron counted some 90,000 African works in French collections, around 70,000 of which are held at the Quai Branly alone. A special 2018 report on the issue by French historian Benedicte Savoy and Senegalese academic Felwine Sarr cited estimates that some 90% of African cultural artifacts were taken from the continent and are held overseas. 

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