More Than Just Objects: The Restorative Power of Returning Looted Artifacts to their Rightful Owners


Photo by Ken Lund

African Artifacts, Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois

“We are just a body. You have our soul.” — The Governor of Chile’s Easter Island on seeing one of the most spiritually important statues of the island held at the British Museum for the last 150 years.

While the quest for the return of looted artifacts dates back to the Roman era, this phenomenon is gathering pace across the globe. African countries in particular, such as the Benin Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Ghana, Egypt, Ethiopia, Namibia, and Nigeria have been campaigning for the restitution of their stolen antiques for decades.

Recently, the campaigns mounted by these countries seem to be recording some successes. After almost 150 years of displaying some of the world’s most precious artifacts, the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently made a groundbreaking announcement. On June 9, 2021, the Met promised to return two of its 160 Benin bronze sculptures to their home country of Nigeria. Between 2023 and 2025, these artifacts will be housed in a newly built museum funded by the Nigerian government and promoted by the Benin royal family.

The Met is not the only Western museum contemplating the repatriation of some of its African artifacts. Museums across Europe seem to be heeding the call for the return of these looted treasures. Following the American museum’s decision, the Government of France, headed by President Emmanuel Macron, returned 26 stolen artifacts taken from the Dahomey kingdom (now the Republic of Benin) during the French invasion of the 18th century.

How did Africa lose its cultural and spiritual treasures?

It is important to provide a short historical background on how African artifacts landed in Western museums and galleries. During the colonization of Africa (ca. 1800–1920), raids were conducted by colonizers on the palaces of monarchs, centers of worship, and other sacred places to plunder deities, symbolic textiles, jewelry, paintings, and sculptures. These goods would then be traded amongst European countries to be displayed in public spaces or kept in private collections. To this day, African artifacts are still being donated to and from European and American museums, with some even being bought privately for millions of dollars.

One of the most infamous of these conquests was the Benin Expedition of 1897. From February 9 to February 18, 1,200 British soldiers surrounded the walls of Benin and burned down the city. Culturally and geographically, the Kingdom of Benin was destroyed and merged as part of the colonial protectorate, called Nigeria. All the king’s spiritual and cultural treasures—3,000 bronze figurines—were stolen and shared between Britain, France, Germany, and other Western powers. According to historical records, 40% went to the British Museum, which to date houses over 900 Benin bronzes. The rest went to the UK’s royal family and are kept in the Queen’s Royal Collection.

The Met houses more than 3,000 African antiques. Germany’s Humboldt Forum, The British Museum, France’s Musée du Quai Branly and Austria’s Weltmuseum own approximately 75,000, 73,000, 7,000 and 40,000 antiques respectively. Belgium’s famous Musée de l’Afrique Centrale, which is dedicated to preserving ancient art, technology, and archeology from Congo, Central Africa, and the African continent as a whole, has over 10 million items. Today, according to the French government’s Restitution of African Cultural Heritage Report (2018), 90–95% of Africa’s history and culture dwells outside the continent.

Which way forward?

While there have been arguments for and against the return of looted artifacts, I would argue that it is important for countries that carried out the looting to accept the generational damage their actions have caused and seek ways to return some artifacts, while negotiating the sharing of—what have become over the years—international common goods. For instance, while some of the artifacts with strong cultural and spiritual values are returned, others could be rotated for social value and educational purposes between the countries of origin of these artifacts and their new homes. A portion of the revenue generated by African exhibitions in the West may be given to African countries to refurbish and construct cultural centers, fund educational heritage programs, and develop preservation systems to maintain the quality of the items.

I would also suggest that a dedicated amount of the profits obtained from visits to African exhibits should be used to support development in relevant countries from where the artifacts were looted. In the process, new history museums, cultural centers and art galleries may be constructed so new artifacts have a home. Training programs can be introduced to prepare and encourage upcoming African artists, designers, historians, curators, and archeologists. This would provide more opportunities for Africa’s youth (60% of the continent is under 25 years old) and create diverse workforces for stronger economies. African countries would also gain profit through tourism, as well as visits to the museums and birthplaces of the looted artifacts.

I strongly disagree with the school of thought that these treasures are better cared for in the countries that obtained them through violence. This deliberately ignores the fact that some of the artifacts already existed for hundreds of years, if not thousands, before they were looted. Moreover, in many African societies, they were not considered items to be displayed publicly and admired. They were adored, adorned, worn and used as tools of prosperity, and were mostly sources of spiritual, physical, and mental wholeness.

Acknowledging a painful history of looting, celebrating a common world heritage

It will take time for the process of returning looted artifacts to be established, and the issue of repatriation will remain with us for generations to come. However, through dedicated research, steadfast open-mindedness, constructive mediation, and an honest analysis of the past, it can be achieved. The Met’s decision to return some of its Benin bronzes is a small but monumental step towards openly and honestly shedding light on the darkest corners of Africa and Europe’s long and deeply intertwined history. It is an even greater step, I would argue, towards restoring pride in people who for generations have had their histories twisted. In time, I hope that this process will help in restoring some soul into the body of a continent.