President Emmanuel Macron has facilitated the return of a total of 26 treasures stolen from Africa back in the colonial era.
Benin President Patrice Talon and Culture Minister Jean-Michel Abimbola travelled to Paris to bring home the artefacts that were snatched by French forces 130 years ago.
Talon said he felt “overwhelming emotion” at recovering the objects taken during the ransacking of the Kingdom of Dahomey in the south of present-day Benin, including a royal throne.
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday at the presidential palace in Paris, where France signed over the artefacts to Benin, Talon said the treasures were much more than cultural goods – the term used by France to describe them.
“This is our soul, Mr President,” he said, flanked by Macron.
The French leader hailed “a symbolic, moving and historic moment” which had been long-awaited by Africans.
The return of the pieces taken from the Royal Palaces of Abomey, which also include three totemic statues, comes as calls mount in Africa for European countries to return the colonial spoils lining their museum shelves.
French legislators last year passed a bill allowing Paris to return artefacts to Benin and Senegal, another former French colony in West Africa.
Talon made clear that he saw Tuesday’s handover as the first step in a large-scale restitution process, asking “how do you expect my enthusiasm to be complete” when France still held other key artefacts.
But he added he was “confident” that further restitutions would follow. “Beyond this handover, we will continue the work,” Macron promised.
Experts estimate that 85 to 90 percent of African cultural artefacts were taken from the continent.
Some were seized by colonial administrators, troops or doctors and passed down to descendants who in turn donated them to museums in Europe.
But others were presented as gifts to missionaries or acquired by African art collectors at the start of the 20th century or discovered during scientific expeditions.
An expert report commissioned by Macron counted some 90,000 African works in French museums, 70,000 of them at the Quai Branly alone.
Britain, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany have also received requests from African countries to return lost treasures.