Many in the continent and the diaspora are bitterly resentful that a large horde of African artifacts is still held in museums in Europe. The cultural heritage does not belong there.
Let’s begin however with two court trials – one concluded in Europe a couple of months ago, and the other filed in the Supreme Court of the United States only this week.
The case set for the US highest court in which Two Jewish descendants seek restitution for misappropriated art during the Holocaust in Germany should pique our interest for what it might mean to bring home the plundered heritage.
That other case, which took place in Paris, France, could lay some background.
Early in the afternoon of 12 June 2020, a group of activists of African descent under the organisation Unité, Dignité, Courage (UDC) purchased tickets for the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.
Once inside, they harangued the museum’s visitors and removed a Bari funeral staff (originating from Chad) from its perch whilst shouting “We’re taking it home!” The protest is captivatingly detailed in The African Report.
The main message the activists wanted to get across, echoing numerous other campaigns, was that artifacts looted by France and other Western nations during the colonial era need to be returned to Africa.
90 to 95 per cent of Africa’s heritage is held outside the continent, according to the landmark 2018 Report on the Restitution of African Cultural Heritage commissioned by French President Emmanuel Macron.
The British Museum in London holds at least 73,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa. France holds 90,000 artifacts, and Belgium’s Royal Museum for Central Africa 120,000 artifacts, that include Rwanda’s.
Germany’s Humboldt Forum holds around 75,000 artifacts, including 10,000 objects looted by German troops during the Maji Maji uprising against colonial rule in present-day Tanzania.
That’s a lot of artifacts, for which the activists were unapologetic disturbing the peace in their symbolic repossession of the funeral staff.
Though the staff was returned without incident, the police arrested the activists, leading to a sort of showdown in a Paris court.
During the trial, the judge was understanding and sympathetic to their cause, but was emphatic of the difference between his empathy and the law: “We are here to judge an infringement, not to judge history,” he was adamant
In the end, the court fined three of the activists a combined sum of €2,000 (RwF2.4 million), a much lesser penalty than the 10-year prison sentence and €150,000 (RwF180 million) fine they originally faced.
The activists found the protests necessary to act despite the mood in Europe, especially under the Benin Dialogue Group (BDG), to consider returning at least some of the heritage to Africa.
The protests, also conducted elsewhere including in the Netherlands, were due to frustration that repatriation does not seem likely in the near future, if at all.
Thus the argument here that, if the Paris court could not judge history, perhaps the US Supreme Court can, as the case of the two descendants of Jewish art dealers seems to suggest.
They want the Supreme Court to rule for the return of a rare collection of medieval ecclesiastical art called the Guelph Treasure.
They argue the treasure was forcibly sold in violation of international law during the Holocaust, which they assert started with Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 and escalated in stages to the mass extermination of Jews from 1939.
The reason the case is in the Supreme Court results from a rarely used clause in the US’s 1976 Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act, which has an “expropriation exception” for lawsuits concerning the taking of property “in violation of international law”.
A ruling in favour of the plaintiffs, it has been pointed out, could lead to the Immunities Act being used to drag all kinds of international disputes – not just those involving art restitution or concerning the Holocaust – in front of US courts.
If this is so, why not use the Act to sue for the return African artifacts?
Already there’s an instance one could start with, given its similarity to the Jew descendant case. In June this year, Christie’s, the British auction house, announced a curated sale in Paris that includes African art.
The artifacts could be candidates for repatriation. Their sale would breach legal ownership and intellectual property rights of these artworks to their countries of origin.