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France Proposed Law on Colonially Looted Artifacts Pressures Ex-Imperial States and Museums

Aug. 21, 2020
By: Lois E. Wetzel


In July 2020 , France again pushed the envelope of a developing, legal framework for the return or restitution of certain cultural property from museum collections. In 2017 President Emanuel Macron announced that the return of African artifacts from French museums would be among France’s top priorities. Adhering to this agenda, on Wednesday, July 15, 2020 the French government introduced proposed legislation that would facilitate the return of a limited group of cultural artifacts currently housed in national museums and taken from African countries during the colonial period.

As background, France, much like most European countries and the U.K, treat national museum collections as national property. Laws that individually govern French museums thus adopt the “principle of inalienability” and objects or artifacts in museum collections are deemed “inalienable.” The principle of inalienability is straightforward in that it is an absolute restriction on transferring ownership. The inalienability of French museum collections then makes deaccessioning – the formal process of removing a work or artifact from a museum collection – very difficult if not “legally impossible” (as some have said). Indeed, the principle of inalienability in France and versions thereof in other European states (and the U.K.) has proved a constant counterforce against the development of laws and policies for the return and restitution of cultural articles in European museum collections generally.  

In other broad historical or societal contexts where return or restitution might be appropriate, like Nazi-stolen art or archeological loot, international law has been the driving force in intranational legal developments. In those contexts, exceptions to the doctrine of inalienability or legislative overrides are not uncommon. However, international law has spoken little on the issue of colonial plunder and there is currently no legal instrument that meaningfully addresses the return of cultural property taken during nineteenth and early-twentieth century imperialism.  

It follows that the law proposed by France in late July, if accepted by parliament, would be a significant development in the context of colonial restitution despite its limited scope and application. Essentially, the proposed legislation would work to suspend the inalienability of certain, named artifacts for one year and mandate that those objects be returned to their countries or communities of origin within that one-year period. As it stands, the law would work to return just 27 artifacts to the former colonies of Benin and Senegal.  

A Benin bronze head in the Bristol U.K. Museum

As mentioned above, the U.K. and many other European countries with impressive museum collections and imperial histories (Spain, Italy, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Denmark) adhere to the principle of inalienability or a similar doctrine. Some major, notable museums from these countries also resist colonial restitution, arguing that such policies would deplete the collections of Western museums. However, France’s legislative proposal mandating a limited return of colonial objects, irrespective of whether it passes in parliament, delegitimizes arguments for retention of these objects on the grounds of inalienability and collection-depletion. It signals to other countries similarly situated that colonial restitution is legally possible and this sort of legislation may be the means. Ultimately, such progressive legislative action on the part of France pushes the bounds of what’s legally possible when it comes to the restitution of colonial artifacts and puts pressure on other countries to follow suit. 

            Do not hesitate to contact any Barnes, Richardson & Colburn, LLP attorney if you have questions about importing or exporting cultural goods.