By (c) David Norden . Published November 18, 2009            Web Archive of

NOTE: This is an interviebaule figurew about Amyas Naegele

Photo #1: Baule figure

Q: How and when did you get started in the field of African art?

A: I grew up in Manhattan, a few blocks from the American Museum of Natural History, where I spent a lot of time as a child. I fell in love with nature and wildlife there and spent hours gazing at the African exhibits. My parents were artists, so I was always surrounded by paintings. I also lived across the hall from the preeminent pre-Columbian and antiquities dealer, Edward Merrin. I was close to his family, so I was often in his apartment, playing with his sons. Sometimes we helped out at the gallery, unpacking these ancient masks and figurines from crates. They used real popcorn back then as packing. Later, after I graduated from college, I traveled around the world and lived for several years in Africa, in what at the time were very out-of-the-way places. When I returned to New York, all of these influences helped me decide that I wanted to pursue a career working with ethnographic art.

Q: Did you begin buying and selling right away? Or were you designing custom mounts and restoring objects first?

A: The first thing I ever did was make a base for a Greek kylix. A week or so before, I had discussed the idea of making bases with Sam Merrin at a Giants game. I was invited down to the gallery and Sam handed me the bronze bowl and asked me to see what I could do. I made the base out of Plexiglas, which was very popular at the time. Both Sam and Ed Merrin liked what I did. They offered some constructive criticism and were kind enough to give me a few more things to work on. Within a few months, I was mounting several figurines, bowls, and masks every week. I added Spencer Throckmorton, Michael Ward, and Maureen Zarember to my client list. I met the collectors Nobel Endicott, Werner Muensterberger, and Marc Ginzberg, and I made connections with African traders, great ones like Ibrahim Kao, who were then bringing outstanding pieces into the country. It wasn’t long before I realized that I was passionate about tribal art, and I started meeting more and more collectors and dealers in that field. People would bring me objects to mount and also to restore.

Q: Can you share some of your secrets, the tricks of the trade? How do you decide how to design a base?

A: For me, it’s mostly intuitive. I’ve always liked the immediacy of working with my hands and with different materials, whether I was sculpting in clay in art school, building a bookcase in my carpenter days, or making a fire at a campsite in the bush. I never make sketches and drawings although I have some clients who provide their own diagrams because they want something very specific. I don’t mind following instructions, but if something doesn’t look right to me I share my opinion. For example, I can rout a small reveal, or step, into the top edge of a wooden base, but I try to dissuade people from using this classical European concept, which entraps dust and provides little more than a distraction.

Q: What inspires you to use wood instead of metal or vice versa?

A: That’s usually up to the client. Personally, I prefer natural materials. When I started out, Plexiglas and black metal bases dominated the market. I found them cold and often inappropriate, so I lobbied for hardwoods, which I think work well with tribal art. The varieties of lumber I settled on are hard, stable, and take stains well. Wood can be left natural or stained black or brown and finished satin or glossy. For larger pieces, as well as those that stand on the floor, steel is still the best as it offers the weight and strength such objects require. Steel can be left raw, painted black, or brushed and lacquered. I also work in brass. It is a pricier but beautiful material that can be polished and patinated to a dark brown, black, or gray. The options are virtually limitless. And, of course, some mounts have no base at all, such as a wall mount.

Q: I noticed that you have all sorts of things in your shop that are mounted as if they are art, but which are neither masks nor figures. Can anything be mounted?

A: Just about. I mount found objects for artists and decorative plates for decorators. I learned from Merton Simpson how a horizontal mount for a Zulu tray could transform a utilitarian object into a work of art. Some objects I mounted for him in the 1990s sold for surprising sums in major auctions and the bases were a big part of their success. The bottom line is that any object will benefit from a tasteful, sensitively constructed mount, which secures it at an optimal height, pitch, and orientation. As I mentioned earlier, sometimes clients have definite ideas about how they want the base to look and at other times they’ll rely on my expertise.

Q: What was the trickiest object you’ve ever had to put on a base?

A: Probably the toughest objects to mount successfully are Dinka corsets.

dinka corset  -Read further below the image

Photo #2: Dinka corset

I’ve mounted several over the years and they are always a challenge. They take their form from their wearer, off the body they are a heap of strung beads and wire stays. And since they are as much about negative space as about color and line, any armature needs to be discreet and minimal, creating a human form while remaining essentially invisible. To add to the challenge, you can’t take meaningful measures from a heap of beads, but you must be able to put the corset, with all its varied diameters, on and off the armature with ease. It’s enough to drive you mad.

Q: Let’s talk about restoration. What sort of repair work do you typically do?

A: We offer a full range of in-house restoration services. Sometimes when an object comes to me for mounting, the owner will indicate something that is broken, perhaps a lost ear on a mask or a comb with a broken tine. Or I may notice some damage to an object while I’m working on it. The very nature of African art (masks that dancers had on while performing, utilitarian objects that were eaten from, worn, or sat on day after day) practically guarantees a certain amount of wear and tear.

eket mask

Photo #3: Eket shrine puppet head, 19th century

Q: Is it ever better not to restore a piece and to leave it imperfect, as it were?

A: Some objects attain a certain magic from being fragmentary. The Venus de Milo springs to mind. Others have suffered so much loss that replacing the missing part or parts threatens to render the piece as something not entirely old and authentic.

makonde bodyPhoto #4: Makonde body mask

Q: You sometimes hear crazy stories about restorers using stuff like toothpaste for repairs. Is that true?

A: Toothpaste can be useful in restoration as a fine abrasive, but not for repairs. I’m beginning to suspect that it is you who are crazy, not the stories you claim to have heard.

Q: What was the hardest object you’ve ever had to restore?

A: There’s no limit to the difficulty of a restoration. A shattered Nok head that arrives as a sack of rubble is likely to remain a sack of rubble.

Q: We’ve talked about your base-making and your work as a restorer. What about buying and selling African art? What distinguishes you as a dealer?

A: Because the vast majority of objects that I base are singular and unsuitable for generic mounts, I spend a great deal of time looking at objects, I mean really studying them closely, to determine how to best mount them. No matter what their field (American paintings, Art Deco furniture, Anatolian bronzes) all dealers take hours, days, years to develop their visual acuity. That’s how any dealer gets a good eye. But my edge, if I have one at all, is my experience having handled tens of thousands of objects. Add to that my intimacy with the African continent (its materials, smells, and cultures), my knowledge as a restorer of what constitutes a patina and my natural skepticism, my knowledge of science and reliance on the scientific method, and you have someone who understands authenticity rather profoundly. I hesitate to bang my own drum, but I know a real drum from a fake as well as anyone.


Traditional African Art: A Beginner’s Guide

Traditional African Art: A Beginner’s Guide

by David Norden, 16/12/2023 owner of

Are you interested in learning more about the diverse and varied artistic expressions of the cultures and communities across the African continent? If so, you are in the right place. In this blog post, we will explore some of the common characteristics and themes of traditional African art, such as the use of masks, sculptures, pottery, textiles, metalwork, and symbolism. We will also explain the purpose and function of traditional African art in relation to religious, social, political, and aesthetic aspects of life. Finally, we will provide some historical and geographical context for the development and diversity of traditional African art, such as the influence of ancient civilizations, trade, colonization, and modernization. And tips for collectors of African Art.

What are the striking masks produced by many cultures across the continent?

One of the most recognizable and distinctive features of traditional African art is the use of masks. Masks are found in various regions and traditions of Africa, such as the Zamble masks of the Guro culture in Ivory Coast, the Yoruba masks in Nigeria, the Lulua and Pende masks in Congo . Each mask has its own style, design, and meaning, reflecting the beliefs, values, and identity of the people who created and used them.

Guro Zamble Mask
Guro. Zamble Helmet Crest Mask, 19th century. Brooklyn Museum, Museum Expedition 1922, Robert B. Woodward Memorial Fund, 22.756.
Expedition 1922, Robert B. Woodward

Masks are not merely decorative objects, but rather powerful and sacred tools for communicating with the spiritual world. They are often worn by specially trained or initiated individuals, such as priests, healers, dancers, or performers, who act as mediators between the human and the divine forest spirits realms. Masks are used in various rituals, ceremonies, and events, such as initiation rites, funerals, festivals, and masquerades. Through the masks, the wearers embody the spirits of the ancestors, the gods, the animals, or the forces of nature, and convey their messages, blessings, or warnings to the community.

Masks also have a significant impact and influence on the development of modern art in Europe during the early 20th century, especially on the Cubist movement and artists such as Pablo Picasso or Matisse ( who was also inspired by e.g. Inuit masks) . Many European artists were fascinated by the masks’ geometric shapes, abstract forms, and expressive features, and incorporated the same techniques used by the Native artists into their own works. They also admired the masks’ spiritual and symbolic meanings, and sought to create a new artistic language that transcended the boundaries of realism and rationalism.

What is the intended function of many African sculptures as talismans or vessels for communicating with the dead ancestors during religious events?

Another prominent and prevalent form of traditional African art is sculpture. Sculptures are made from various materials, such as wood, clay, metal, ivory, or stone, and represent different subjects, such as human figures, animals, or abstract shapes. Sculptures are not only aesthetic objects, but also functional and meaningful ones, as they serve as talismans or vessels for communicating with the dead ancestors during religious events.

Ancestor worship is a common and important concept in many African cultures and religions, as the dead are believed to have a continuous and influential presence in the living world. The ancestors are revered and respected as the sources of life, wisdom, and protection, and are consulted and appeased for guidance, support, and harmony. Sculptures are used to represent, honor, or invoke the ancestors, and are often placed in shrines, altars, or tombs, where offerings, prayers, or sacrifices are made to them.

Some examples of sculptures that are used for ancestor worship are the Teke figures in Congo, Ndops of the royal Kuba culture in Congo, the Nok terracotta figures in Nigeria, and the Dogon wooden statues in Mali. Each sculpture has its own symbolism and aesthetics, such as the exaggerated or abstract features, the use of animal motifs, the incorporation of metals, and the attention to detail and beauty. The sculptures are not meant to be realistic or naturalistic portraits of the ancestors, but rather idealized or stylized representations of their essence, power, and personality.

Teke figure

Statuette Teke figure, provenance Robert Lehuard avant 1933
Hauteur= 25 cm

What are the characteristics and techniques of pottery in traditional African art?

Pottery is another common and diverse form of traditional African art, found in various cultures and regions of the continent. Pottery includes different types and functions, such as jugs, vessels, bowls, and figurines, and is made from clay, which is shaped, fired, glazed, and decorated. Pottery is not only a practical and utilitarian object, but also an artistic and cultural one, as it expresses the creativity, identity, and spirituality of the makers and users.

Pottery involves various methods and skills, such as coiling, which is the technique of building up the clay by adding coils or ropes of clay on top of each other, and firing, which is the process of heating the clay in a kiln or an open fire to harden it and make it durable. Glazing is the technique of applying a thin layer of liquid clay or other substances to the surface of the pottery to give it a shiny, colorful, or textured finish. Decorating is the technique of adding patterns, designs, or motifs to the pottery, using tools, stamps, brushes, or fingers.

Pottery has a lot of artistic and cultural value, as it reflects the social and environmental factors that influence the makers and users, such as the availability of resources, the level of technology, the style of expression, and the purpose of use. Pottery also preserves the history and heritage of the people, as it records their stories, beliefs, and traditions, and passes them on to the next generations.

Famous African Art Pottery can be found in Nigeria with Nok figures, Mangbetu pottery, Lobi dotted pots, or Krinjabo figures from the Akan in Ghana.

Akan figure
Akan figure commemorative statue. Terracotta.
H= 25 cm.


We hope you enjoyed this blog post and learned something new about traditional African art. As you can see, traditional African art is not a monolithic or homogeneous category, but rather a rich and diverse field of artistic expressions, with different forms, styles, meanings, and functions. Traditional African art is not only important and relevant for its own sake, but also for its contribution to the global artistic and cultural heritage. If you want to learn more and explore traditional African art, here are some suggestions and resources:


    • Watch a video or a documentary that features traditional African art, such as Africa’s Great Civilizations, Beginning with Africa's ancient history as the cradle of mankind, this documentary series with Henry Louis Gates, Jr. brings to life the epic stories of both little-known and celebrated African kingdoms and cultures.

  • Buy genuine African Art from David Norden's collection in Antwerp, Belgium ( online of in his shop) at

Afrikaans masker te koop

Koppel verkoopt Afrikaans masker voor 150 euro, antiekhandelaar veilt het voor 5,25 miljoen

Het Fang-masker. — © afp

Een Frans echtpaar klaagt een antiekhandelaar aan die een masker uit Gabon voor een schijntje van hen kocht. Op een veiling bracht het miljoenen op.

(c)Bron: De Standaard Arjen Ribbens (NRC) 13/10/2023

Het is klassiek kunstnieuws: een vondst van een rommelzolder wordt voor een miljoenenbedrag geveild. Maar wat als de inbrenger op de veiling een sluwe antiekhandelaar is die de kunstschat voor een habbekrats kocht van onwetende burgers? Kunnen de voormalige eigenaren de verkoop aan de handelaar dan nog herroepen? In Frankrijk speelt een juridisch geschil over precies dit probleem, een zaak die al veel stof heeft doen opwaaien.

De hoofdrollen zijn voor een anoniem Frans echtpaar. Zij is 81, hij 88. Bij het uitruimen van hun vakantiewoning vonden ze een Afrikaans masker. Ze verkochten het in september 2021 voor 150 euro aan een lokale antiekhandelaar. Een halfjaar later las het echtpaar in de krant dat hun houten masker op een veiling in Montpellier was afgehamerd voor 4,2 miljoen euro. Inclusief opgeld had een verzamelaar dus 5,25 miljoen over voor het masker dat de grootvader van de 88-jarige man, een koloniaal gouverneur in Afrika, in 1917 had meegenomen uit Gabon.

Het bleek te gaan om een zeldzaam masker van kaashout van de Fang, een etnische groep in West-Afrika. Leden van het Ngil-mannengenootschap droegen zulke maskers tijdens de initiatie van nieuwe leden, een ritueel dat omstreeks 1920 verdween.


Het echtpaar klaagde de handelaar aan. Hij had hen bedrogen, stelde het paar. De antiquair wist hoe waardevol het masker was toen hij het voor 150 euro kocht. De rechtbank van Alès, waar de zaak mei vorig jaar diende, stelde hen echter in het ongelijk. Het paar moest de kunsthandelaar 3.000 euro vergoeden voor zijn gemaakte juridische kosten.

Het stel liet het er niet bij. Op 28 juni oordeelde het hof van beroep in Nîmes dat de klacht ‘in principe gegrond’ lijkt. Op last van het hof werd de netto veilingopbrengst bevroren, een bedrag van 3,1 miljoen euro na aftrek van veilingkosten en belasting. In november krijgt de zaak een vervolg.

Het geschil is in Franse kranten breed uitgemeten. Dat de handelaar wist dat hij iets bijzonders in handen had gekregen, staat wel vast. Hij bood het masker nooit in zijn winkel te koop aan en nam direct contact op met twee veilinghuizen in Parijs, Drouot en Fauve. Die miskenden het belang van het masker en waardeerden het op respectievelijk 100 tot 200 euro en 400 tot 600 euro.

De handelaar zocht daarna contact met het in etnografica gespecialiseerde Hôtel des Ventes in Montpellier. Op zijn verzoek liet het veilinghuis het masker wetenschappelijk onderzoeken. Dendrologisch onderzoek wees uit dat het gebruikte kaashout dateerde uit de 19de eeuw. Een vooraanstaand etnoloog oordeelde vervolgens dat het moest gaan om een van de weinige bewaard gebleven maskers van het geheime Ngil-genootschap.

Met gevoel voor marketing bood het veilinghuis het masker te koop aan met de aantrekkelijk lage richtprijs tussen de 300.000 en 400.000 euro. Na een intensieve biedstrijd, met tien verschillende bieders, werd het masker dus voor 5,25 miljoen euro verkocht, 700.000 euro onder het veilingrecord voor een Fang-masker.

Ook tuinman beschuldigd

De antiekhandelaar heeft geprobeerd de zaak te schikken met een afkoopsom van 300.000 euro. De kinderen van het echtpaar zouden dat aanbod hebben afgewezen.

Het echtpaar zou ook de tuinman beschuldigen. In een promotiefilm voorafgaand aan de veiling vertelt de veilingmeester van het Hôtel des Ventes hoe het masker in 1917 vanuit Gabon naar Frankrijk is gebracht door de bij naam genoemde grootvader van de 88-jarige voormalige eigenaar. Die voor verzamelaars belangrijke herkomstgegevens heeft de tuinman bij hen opgevraagd en aan de antiquair doorgespeeld, stelt het echtpaar.

Het echtpaar is niet de enige partij die om het Fang-masker strijdt. Tijdens de veiling in maart 2022 protesteerden leden van de Gabonese gemeenschap in Montpellier. Zij eisten ‘restitutie’, omdat het masker van hun voorvaderen ‘gestolen’ was.

Museums ethical dilemna

When a Visit to the Museum Becomes an Ethical Dilemma

Western museums are major tourist attractions, drawing travelers from around the world. But what responsibility do we bear as spectators for patronizing institutions that display what critics say are stolen works?

above photo: A 16th-century Benin Bronze sculpture at the Humboldt Forum, a Berlin museum that has begun to repatriate some of the artifacts to Nigeria. The bronzes were taken from the Kingdom of Benin in 1897 by British forces. photo Andreas Meichsner found at The New York Times

On a recent morning, visitors trickled into the Africa wing of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin, a massive museum that opened in 2021 in a neo-Baroque reconstruction of the city’s former Royal Palace. The setup was familiar: Artifacts were enclosed behind glass and mounted onto white walls — an “ethnological display” of priceless artworks from a far-off land.

But this exhibition was different. Dozens of Benin Bronzes, intricate sculptures and plaques in metal that date back as far as the 13th century, were on display in Berlin for what may be the last time. Since July 2021, the artifacts no longer belong to Germany. They are part of a trove the country has begun to repatriate to Nigeria, beginning in December with the return of 20 bronzes. The exhibition tells not just the story of the objects, but also of their theft in 1897, when British forces sacked Benin City, looting the royal palace of the Kingdom of Benin in what is now southwest Nigeria.

Diagrams explain how the bronzes were acquired from European traders, while photos show British soldiers striking triumphant poses atop piles of loot. In one room, I joined tourists who watched videos depicting scholars, artists, German and Nigerian curators, and representatives of the royal family in Benin City discussing the significance of restitution.

Humboldt Gallery Benin Art Photo Andreas Meichsner
An exhibition at the Humboldt Gallery tells the story of the Benin Bronzes, some of which date back as far as the 13th century, and describes their planned return to Nigeria. Photo Andreas Meichsner at The New York Times
The bronzes have been at the center of an international firestorm as calls mount for Western museums to take responsibility for how they obtained objects that were seized during the colonial era, or looted by Nazis and other invading forces.

For museum goers, the ethical dimensions of viewing plundered art have become impossible to ignore. Western museums are major tourist attractions, drawing travelers from around the world. But what responsibility do we bear as spectators for patronizing institutions that display what critics say are stolen works? Should we be asking how these museums got their treasures? Does our conception of a modern-day ethnological museum need a dramatic rethink?

“There has been a great change of consciousness in the last years,” said Gilbert Lupfer of the German Lost Art Foundation, the world’s most extensive database for the search for Nazi-looted art. “More and more, visitors of museums have become interested in questions of provenance.” And most of them, he said, realize that works with a problematic provenance “can’t remain in the museum.”

The Humboldt Forum, which opened in 2021, occupies a reconstruction of the Royal Palace in Berlin. Photo Andreas Meichsner at The New York Times

European and American museums have long resisted calls for repatriation, arguing that objects from Africa, Asia and elsewhere were legally obtained, that they are safer where they are, and that passing time and turmoil have made it impossible to determine rightful owners.

But in recent years, the scales have tipped.

“I think there’s been a big shift,” said Geoffrey Robertson, a British-Australian restitution expert and human rights lawyer, and the author of the 2020 book “Who Owns History?” “It started in a way with President Macron saying that Indigenous art, so much of which is in Western museums, should go back to Africa,” he said, referring to President Emmanuel Macron’s 2017 pledge to return France’s plundered African holdings.

In 2021, the German, Dutch and Belgian governments all announced plans to identify objects in museums that were looted during the colonial era and start the process of returning them. At least 16 U.S. museums have said they are engaged in the process of repatriating their Benin Bronzes, including the Smithsonian Institution and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and five more say they would be willing to do so if requested.

The increased scrutiny is not reserved for colonial plunder. Many institutions are reassessing their handling of artworks believed to have been stolen by the Nazis, who looted cultural property from every territory they occupied, targeting Jews in particular, and ultimately amassing hundreds of thousands of objects. Many of those objects ended up in auction houses and museums across the world. According to the United States National Archives, upward of 20 percent of all European art was looted by the Nazis.

Last year, New York State passed a law requiring museums to identify art stolen by the Nazis on placards “prominently placed” alongside the art. Last February, the decision of a committee in the Netherlands to return a Kandinsky to the family of a Jewish woman who most likely owned it before the Holocaust is the latest decision in that country favoring restitution.

And this year, the descendants of a German-Jewish collector filed suit against the Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation for ownership of a Picasso masterpiece that the collector sold after fleeing Nazi Germany on the grounds that the sale was made under duress.

In Germany, over the last 10 to 12 years, Mr. Lupfer said that museum professionals have largely gone from fighting to retain contested holdings to “realizing that it’s absolutely necessary— it’s ethically, politically, socially necessary— to make restitutions.”

Controversies surrounding Nazi-looted art have long swirled around the Leopold Museum in Vienna. Photo Anna Pribylova

Which is not to say that all European museums came to that conclusion easily. The Leopold Museum in Vienna, which was formed from the private collection of Rudolf and Elisabeth Leopold, has long been shrouded in controversy regarding Nazi-looted art.

In 1998, the Manhattan district attorney served a subpoena to the Museum of Modern Art, ordering it to hold two Egon Schiele paintings on loan from the Leopold after a New York Times investigation uncovered their disputed ownership. Later, an independent 2008 study found that numerous artworks in the museum had belonged to people persecuted by the Nazis, and that Dr. Leopold, who died in 2010, had reason to suspect they had been looted.

After years of sparring in the courts, the museum reached settlements with the heirs of the original owners of 11 artworks, including one of the two seized in New York. Contested paintings are now displayed with labels explaining that they were taken from Jewish owners by the Nazis.

Hans-Peter Wipplinger, the director of the Leopold, emphasized in a statement that the museum has prioritized provenance research since its inception, and in 2003 commissioned an in-house researcher, whose work was complemented by the independent panel beginning in 2008.

“By the end of 2020, the independent provenance researchers had concluded their research into the core collection of the Leopold Museum,” Mr. Wipplinger said, noting that they “have been unable to identify further works from the Leopold Museum’s collection with a history of confiscation during the National Socialist era. Should such works be identified in the future, the Leopold Museum Private Foundation will seek and implement a ‘fair and just solution.’”

But critics say that provenance has still not been established for more than 90 percent of the artworks in the museum, which is a private collection and not beholden to Austria’s federal restitution guidelines.

Visitors, many of whom have traveled from afar to see the world’s largest collection of Schieles, have to reckon with the knowledge that the art they are viewing might have been stolen from Holocaust victims.

The British Museum in London is home to around eight million objects, many of them acquired during the centuries-long rule of the British Empire. Photo Toby Melville/Reuters

There is no institution that’s faced more controversy around colonial acquisitions than the British Museum, which was the first public national museum to cover all fields of knowledge when it was founded in 1753 in London. It is home to around eight million objects, many of which were acquired during the centuries-long rule of the British Empire.

“I’ve described the British Museum as the world’s greatest receiver of stolen property,” said Mr. Robertson, whose book lays out a case against the museum’s resistance to returning colonial plunder. “Tourists should bear in mind that much of the interesting ethnic stuff that’s on display is, in fact, stolen, often at the end of a musket.”

When I visited the museum recently, lines snaked around the block. The museum was thronged with visitors who had come to see its marvels of human civilization, including the Rosetta Stone (removed from Egypt by the British in 1802) and jade treasures from the Summer Palace in Beijing (sacked by British and French forces in 1860).

Visitors crowded into the Greek galleries to see what is probably the most contested holding, the Parthenon Marbles — or Elgin Marbles as they are sometimes called, after the British aristocrat who had them removed from the Acropolis of Athens in the early 1800s. A collection of Classical Greek sculptures dating from the fifth century B.C., the marbles have been the subject of public acrimony almost since the moment they were taken (Lord Byron wrote a poem about their removal in 1811).

Although the British Museum has been in talks with the Greek authorities about a possible settlement for more than 30 years, the museum has held steadfast, arguing, among other points, that Lord Elgin purchased the marbles legitimately from representatives of the Ottoman Empire, which occupied Greece at the time. Restitution proponents counter that the Ottomans were invaders who could not legitimately sell off the country’s heritage.

Museums have long relied on legalistic conventions, presenting sales receipts for the contested items, or documents declaring that they were handed over legally, but critics say these formalities masked coercion and theft.

“It is a very difficult discussion, and the question, ‘Did he acquire it lawfully?’ won’t bring you much further,” said Evelien Campfens, a legal scholar specializing in art and cultural heritage law at Leiden University in the Netherlands. “You can see this even with Nazi-looted art, with sales to a Nazi officer where there was money involved. Was that legal? Well, under the legislation at the time, it was lawful, but we do not think that’s correct today.”

With cases involving colonial-era objects or religious artifacts that are still of cultural importance to people today, Dr. Campfens said, “It’s clear that it’s not just a commodity that we’re talking about.”

At the British Museum, under a Parthenon frieze, a Greek family posed for photos in front of figures of gods and heroes. As in Berlin, accompanying explanations acknowledged the sculptures’ contested provenance, but here, no plans were announced to return the artworks.

In their resistance to repatriation, officials often cite the British Museum Act of 1963, legislation that prohibits the trustees from removing items from the collection except under exceptional circumstances. The law would need to be changed by Parliament, although some restitution experts have argued that it is vague enough to give the trustees leeway.

The Acropolis Museum in Athens. Photographer unknown.

opening in 2009 of the Acropolis Museum, at the foot of the ancient Acropolis, where the British-held Parthenon Marbles would be reunited with those that remain in Greece. Secret talks over the past year between Greece and the British Museum are an encouraging sign that the dispute could be nearing resolution, though officials on both sides have made it clear that no deal is yet in sight.

“Discussions with Greece about a Parthenon Partnership are ongoing and constructive,” said a British Museum spokesman in a statement to The New York Times. “As the chair of trustees said recently, we operate within the law and we’re not going to dismantle the museum’s collection as it tells the story of our common humanity. We are however looking at long-term partnerships, which would enable some of our greatest objects to be shared with audiences around the world.”

As I wandered through the museum, I encountered, again and again, visitors who not only were aware of the contested provenance of some exhibits, but were connected to the countries from which works had been plundered.

“These are much more than just art pieces,” said Ayodeji Onime, a Nigerian of Edo ethnicity visiting the Africa galleries, where the museum displays artifacts from the Kingdom of Benin. Knowing how they were taken “through bloodshed” makes the experience of viewing them painful, Mr. Onime said. He gestured toward painted wooden effigies, or ikenga, made by the Igbo people of southeast Nigeria. These works “have a spiritual connotation,” he said. “It’s like a part of our ancestors have been snatched or stolen away.”

“I don’t think that they should take things away from the native place,” said Isidora Labbé, a 23-year-old Chilean who had come to see Hoa Hakananai‘a, an ancient basalt statue, or moai, taken in 1868 by the crew of a British ship from Rapa Nui, or Easter Island, a Chilean territory in Polynesia. “For the people in the island, this is a very important thing,” Ms. Labbé said. “It’s a keeper of peace and security.”

The fact that the British Museum is one of the world’s great attractions, where anyone can view, in one place, the achievements of human history, is one argument against repatriation. But consensus is building that such an attraction should not come at the expense of cultural plunder. Meanwhile, new projects, like the Edo Museum of West African Art in Nigeria, where repatriated artworks from historical Benin will be housed, are recasting conceptions of what an ethnological museum should look like.

A vast complex at the site of historic Benin City, the museum was conceived by the Ghanaian-British architect David Adjaye as “a kind of abstraction of how Benin City would have looked before.” Excavated through a joint archaeological project with the British Museum, the site will include a research and collections center, rainforest gardens and an artisans’ hall where contemporary craftspeople can sell their wares. The main museum building will be a riff on the old Benin Palace where visitors can view repatriated bronzes and learn about colonialism.

“You can walk through an area that has the nature as it would’ve been in those days, and you actually can see the ancient moats and walls,” said Phillip Ihenacho, a Nigerian financier who serves as executive chairman of the trust that owns and operates the project, which will begin its phased opening next year. “You will understand that this isn’t about an ancient civilization that died. The tradition of craftsmanship exists today. It has been passed down.”

Perhaps most crucially, Mr. Ihenacho said, the project offers a hopeful narrative to the local population. “When they understand how sophisticated, how advanced and how great the Benin Kingdom was relative to what was happening in Europe at the time, it can give people a sense of optimism for the future,” he said. “There is a way to talk about how things could be.”

Charly Wilder is a writer based in Berlin and Mexico City and a frequent contributor to the Travel section. You can follow her work on Twitter and Instagram. Article published Feb. 28, 2023 on The New York Times 

Macron a raison de vouloir rendre l’art africain en Afrique

Par Ido Vock (Ido Vock est le correspondant Europe au New Statesman ) article publié le 2 March 2023

Dahomey door quai Branly

Une porte du royaume du Dahomey dans le Bénin actuel, conservée au Musée du Quai Branly, France. Photo de Michel Euler / AP

« Je ne peux pas accepter qu’une grande partie du patrimoine culturel de plusieurs pays africains soit conservée en France », a déclaré Emmanuel Macron lors d’une visite officielle en 2017 à Ouagadougou, la capitale du Burkina Faso. S’exprimant à l’Université de Ouagadougou, il a reconnu qu’il n’y a « aucune justification valable, durable et inconditionnelle » pour que des œuvres d’art prises sur le continent pendant la période coloniale soient conservées en Europe de façon permanente. Il a ajouté qu’il souhaitait « que les conditions soient réunies d’ici cinq ans pour le… retour du patrimoine africain en Afrique ».

Pourtant, au cours des six années qui ont suivi, malgré les demandes de plusieurs pays africains pour que les œuvres d’art prises sur le continent soient restituées, les progrès pour rapatrier les œuvres d’art pillées ont été glacials. On estime que des dizaines de milliers de pièces sont détenues en France, mais seule une poignée a jusqu’à présent été restituée.

Dans une tentative apparente d’accélérer les choses, le 27 février, Macron a annoncé un projet de loi visant à rationaliser le processus de restitution. Le projet de loi « codifiera la méthodologie et les critères de procédure », a déclaré Macron, avant sa 18e visite en Afrique depuis son entrée en fonction. Il a ajouté qu’il espérait que la loi s’intégrerait dans un effort plus large des pays européens pour restaurer l’art pillé dans leurs lieux d’origine.

L’ampleur du problème est stupéfiante. Selon les estimations, la quasi-totalité – 90 à 95 % – du patrimoine culturel de l’Afrique subsaharienne se situe en dehors de l’Afrique. Les statistiques compilées par l’historienne Bénédicte Savoy et l’universitaire sénégalais Felwine Sarr suggèrent que des centaines de milliers d’œuvres d’art sont détenues dans les collections des musées européens, dont beaucoup ont été créées dans le but de montrer l’entreprise coloniale de leur pays.

Number of African Art pieces in European Museums

Un étonnant 180 000 pièces d’art africain sont conservées au Musée royal de l’Afrique centrale de Belgique, créé à l’origine pour mettre en valeur la domination brutale du pays sur le Congo. Le British Museum à Londres et le musée du Quai Branly à Paris détiennent tous deux environ 70 000 pièces.

Alors que certaines pièces et artefacts ont été carrément pillés sous le colonialisme, même les pièces théoriquement achetées par les Européens ont en fait été pillées en raison des relations de pouvoir inégales entre colonisateur et colonisé, selon le rapport historique de Savoy et Sarr sur l’art africain en Europe.

Depuis le discours de Macron en 2017, la France a restitué quelques dizaines d’œuvres d’art aux pays africains. En 2020, la couronne de Ranavalona III, le dernier souverain à gouverner Madagascar avant la domination française, a été restituée au pays, bien qu’officiellement uniquement en prêt temporaire. Un an plus tard, 26 objets provenant des Palais royaux d’Abomey en 1892 par les troupes françaises et conservés dans la collection du Musée du Quai Branly sont rapatriés au Bénin. Macron a récemment promis que l’énorme tambour Djidji Ayokwe, pris au peuple Tchaman de l’actuelle Côte d’Ivoire en 1916, serait également bientôt restitué.

Le processus a été ralenti par des obstacles juridiques, notamment les lois françaises qui protègent «l’inviolabilité» des collections nationales, ce qui signifie que les retours doivent être approuvés par le Parlement sur une base individuelle. Les appels à restaurer l’art spolié se sont également heurtés à des objections de principe : en 2020, Stéphane Martin, le président du musée du quai Branly, a défendu « l’universalité » de l’art exposé dans les musées, quel que soit son lieu d’origine.

Certains conservateurs s’inquiètent des conditions dans lesquelles des objets fragiles pourraient être conservés, parfois dans des pays aux politiques instables et corrompues. Les gouvernements africains rejettent ce point de vue, arguant que les investissements dans des musées à la pointe de la technologie tels que le Musée des civilisations noires du Sénégal ou le futur Musée d’art ouest-africain d’Edo au Nigeria prouvent qu’on peut leur faire confiance pour sauvegarder leurs propres artefacts culturels.

Pourtant, l’effort de Macron s’inscrit dans un mouvement plus large en Europe pour restituer l’art pillé, une tendance qui prend de l’ampleur, quoique plutôt lentement. L’Allemagne a rapatrié au Nigeria des dizaines de statues en bronze du Bénin à la fin de l’année dernière, initialement pillées par des soldats britanniques en 1897. L’Université d’Aberdeen a restitué un bronze volé lors de la même expédition en 2021.

Pourtant, de nombreux autres conflits de propriété, certains en dehors de l’Afrique, sont en cours. Les marbres d’Elgin, transportés d’Athènes à Londres par Thomas Bruce au début du 19ème siècle, sont peut-être l’exemple le plus médiatisé d’art pris dans des conditions douteuses se présentant dans une capitale occidentale. La querelle continue d’empoisonner les relations entre la Grèce et le Royaume-Uni.

Il y a plus qu’un soupçon de géopolitique autour de l’objectif déclaré de Macron de restituer des œuvres d’art en Afrique. L’annonce est intervenue alors qu’il se préparait à une visite sur le continent pour tenter de sauver l’influence des États africains, dont certains se tournent de plus en plus vers la Russie et la Chine au lieu de l’ancienne puissance coloniale. Même ainsi, le président français a raison de rouvrir la question de l’art apporté en Europe sous le colonialisme, bien que le rythme des retours suggère que ses actions ne correspondent pas encore à sa rhétorique ambitieuse.

Article publié originellement sur le

Lire aussi : Un cri de haine contre le concept même de musée

Un cri de haine contre le concept même de musée

“Un cri de haine contre le concept même de musée” : l'ex-patron du Quai Branly à propos des restitutions massives d’œuvres à l'Afrique préconisées par un rapport

Le rapport Savoy-Sarr a recensé des dizaines de milliers d'oeuvres potentiellement concernées.

article trouvé sur FranceInfo Cultures  Publié

Photo ci dessus: Des statues royales du Royaume du Dahomey datant de 1890-1892 exposées au Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac à Paris, le 18 mai 2018. (photo GERARD JULIEN / AFP)

L'ancien président du Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac, Stéphane Martin, a regretté mercredi que le rapport Savoy-Sarr sur les restitutions à l'Afrique soit un “cri de haine contre le concept même de musée”, alors que les musées français devraient soutenir les musées africains.

Interrogé par la commission de la culture du Sénat, Stéphane Martin, durant 21 ans à la tête de ce musée abritant la plus grande collection française d'arts premiers, a estimé qu'il vaut mieux parler de “circulation” des oeuvres et de “partage”, “passant par des prêts, des dépôts et un certain nombre de transferts de propriétés”, plutôt que de restitutions massives que semblait prôner ce rapport remis fin 2018 au président Macron.

“Il faut bâtir une politique musées-musées”

“Aucun musée n'a été construit avec de l'argent français depuis les indépendances”, contrairement à la Chine qui a financé le musée de Dakar, a-t-il regretté. “On a investi très peu. Il faut aider à la rénovation d'un certain nombre de musées. Il faut bâtir une politique musées-musées”.

Il est aussi “urgent de redonner leur dignité aux conservateurs africains”, discriminés par rapport aux universitaires. “Un conservateur a peu de débouchés. Il faut insister diplomatiquement pour que ces personnes soient traitées comme elles doivent l'être”, avec des “salaires décents“.

Ceremonie Alto Dahomey
La cérémonie Alto du royaume de Dahomey, une des oeuvres du Bénin exposées au Musée du Quai Branly – Jacques Chirac, dont le pays demande la restitution à la France. (GERARD JULIEN / AFP)

Dans leur rapport demandé par le président de la République, les universitaires Bénédicte Savoy, du Collège de France, et Felwine Sarr, de l'Université de Saint-Louis au Sénégal, avaient posé les jalons pour une restitution à l'Afrique subsaharienne d'oeuvres d'art transférées pendant la colonisation. Ils avaient recensé des dizaines de milliers d'oeuvres potentiellement concernées.

“Un cri de haine contre le concept même de musée”

Stéphane Martin s'est étonné que ce rapport ait été confié à deux universitaires, Felwine Sarr et Bénédicte Savoy, “deux personnes qui ne sont pas des gens de musées”.

“Ce rapport est un cri de haine contre le concept même de musée, considéré comme une invention occidentale, comme un lieu quasi criminel dans lequel les objets sont plumés, déshabillés, où on leur retire leur magie”, a-t-il dénoncé.

Le Musée du Quai Branly a accepté de restituer au Bénin 26 oeuvres qui avaient été volées lors d'une opération militaire française à la fin du XIXe siècle.


Depuis le rapport Savoy-Sarr, plusieurs autres demandes ont été émises par des gouvernements africains pour se voir restituer diverses oeuvres se trouvant dans les musées français.

Stéphane Martin a cité l'exemple de la statue du dieu Gou au Louvre : “les Béninois envisagent de nous la demander”. Or cette statue avait été réalisée par un sculpteur d'un pays voisin du royaume d'Abomey fait prisonnier, abandonnée sur une plage, ramenée par une navigateur français. Elle a passé “150 ans au Louvre” et est devenue une “icône”, dessinée et décrite par Picasso et Apollinaire.

Pour lui la période de la colonisation envisagée par le rapport, entre 1898 et 1962, ne peut être “comparable” à la période de Vichy en termes de restitutions de biens.

“Il y a quelque chose d'assez pervers à prétendre que l'universalité (des oeuvres d'art) n'est pas une bonne chose. L'idée est répandue (…) à droite comme à gauche, que le monde serait meilleur si l'objet retournait à sa place dans l'église” ou autre lieu d'origine où il a été pris, a-t-il remarqué.

The return of African art to Africa

Emmanuel Macron is right to want to return African art to Africa

He just needs to do it faster.

By Ido Vock (Ido Vock is a Europe correspondent at the New Statesman ) 2 March 2023

( Preferez-vous lire l'article en Français ? Macron a raison de vouloir rendre l’art africain en Afrique )

image above: A door from the kingdom of Dahomey in moder-day Benin, held in the Quai Branly Museum, France. Photo by Michel Euler / AP

“I cannot accept that a large share of several African countries’ cultural heritage be kept in France,” Emmanuel Macron said on a 2017 official visit to Ouagadougou, the capital of Burkina Faso. Speaking at the University of Ouagadougou, he acknowledged that there is “no valid, lasting and unconditional justification” for artwork taken from the continent during the colonial period to be held in Europe permanently. He added that he wanted “the conditions to be in place within five years for the… return of African heritage to Africa”.

Yet in the six years since, despite demands by multiple African countries for art taken from the continent to be returned, progress to repatriate looted artwork has been glacial. Tens of thousands of pieces are estimated to be held in France, yet only a handful have so far been returned.

In an apparent attempt to speed matters up, on 27 February 2023 Macron announced a bill to streamline the process of restitution. The proposed law will “codify the methodology and criteria for proceeding”, Macron said, ahead of his 18th visit to Africa since taking office. He added that he hoped the law would fit in with a larger effort of European countries restoring looted art to their places of origin.

The scale of the issue is staggering. Nearly all – 90-95 per cent – of sub-Saharan Africa’s cultural heritage is estimated to be located outside Africa. Statistics compiled by the historian Bénédicte Savoy and the Senegalese academic Felwine Sarr suggest that hundreds of thousands of artworks are held in the collections of European museums, many of which were created with the intent to show off their countries’ colonial enterprise.

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