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The Forgotten Movement to Reclaim Africa’s Stolen Art

Thanks to colonialism, some of Africa’s greatest artworks continue to reside in European museums despite decades of debate about their repatriation. With cultural shifts and potentially geopolitical concerns at play, European governments and museums began recently to warm to the idea of returning works, with some actually beginning the process. A new book by Bénédicte Savoy, ‘Africa’s Struggle for its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat’ charts the public posturing around the movement, as well as the private machinations to undermine it. Away from the bright lights of political assemblies, in the quiet offices of Europe’s ethnographic collections, museum professionals mounted a white-gloved resistance. Publicly, this involved a rhetoric of universalism, the exaggerated spectre of vacant museums, and diversionary offers of developmental assistance. Privately, it extended to sabotaging international committees, ostracizing dissenters, and denigrating African claimants as unfit to conserve their heritage. The most essential tactic was secrecy, particularly the concealment of inventories and provenance information. This bureaucratic counter-revolution centered on West Germany, where Savoy unearths a coördinated effort to block restitution claims. Her investigation yields a riveting scholarly whodunnit that doubles as a timely warning, in her words, that “museums also lie.”