The Repatriation of African Artifacts: A Fleeting Illusion?

Photo Cr: British Museum
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Written by Tadese Faforiji

Repatriation is the restitution of a person or objects to their original location. The repatriation of African artefacts is the call for the returning of stolen African artefacts by Europe during the era of colonization.

How They Were Stolen

Following the Punitive Expedition of 1897 by the British soldiers against Benin when the latter resisted British domination, many artefacts (terracotta heads, bronzes, etc.) that were made in Benin were stolen by the British forces when the empire was conquered.

And afterwards, some of the stolen artefacts started to display in museums in Britain, America, France, Belgium, and others.

Call for Restitution

Many countries have been calling for the repatriation of their stolen artefacts and this has become a debate between the intellectual minds of Africa and Europe/America.

Obviously, parts of the stolen works were repatriated but there are still tens of thousands of African artefacts in foreign museums.

Many international treaties and conventions supported the course of repatriation and also against the illicit trade in human antiquities.

Among them are the London Convention of 1943, The UNIDROIT Convention, the UNESCO Convention, and many more in that line. However, the question of repatriation remains a fleeting illusion. There are many reasons for the slow movement of repatriation.

Obstacles against Repatriation

One of the reasons for the failure of having African artefacts back is the mere involvement of the (African) source countries. Apart from the historians and people who have something to do with the artefacts, the question remains unknown to some Africans.

Many countries actually lost their artefacts to the unfortunate colonization, but Nigeria, Ghana, and Mali are the most stressed countries just because of their active call for the restitution of the stolen antiquities.

Also, the move to have artefacts repatriated is a complicated one. As the Museum of Fine Art Boston claimed the provenance for having the Nigerian artefacts (mostly stolen from Benin and Ife) to one obscure Owen Lehman, it will be difficult for Nigeria to actually come with the evidence that British soldiers actually stole these materials.

Besides, the laws prohibiting trade in human properties actually are subservient to foreign museums’ policies in relation to repatriation requests.

Since no African country is militarily strong enough to demand her artefacts, and they still, in reality, depend on European and American countries for economic aids, credits and donors, repatriation becomes a “yesterday dream”.

Should Museums Return Looted Artifacts to Their Countries of Origin? - The  New York Times
Artifacts: pic by nytimes’

The cultural internationalism that sees the heritage of the world as a whole is also a threat to the actual realization of repatriation requests.

This thought sees all cultural properties, existing on earth irrespective of locations, as a whole; therefore, they become world heritage and should be protected irrespective of their territorial differentiation.

Finally, though there are laws protecting the heritage of humanity and against illicit trade, the total repatriation of African stolen artefacts remains an illusion until big powers like the United States of America, UK, Russia, Germany, China among others supported this course both militarily and economically.

However, this will not be achieved as the superpowers that majorly (stolen) possess the stolen artefacts.

Citation: Tadese Faforiji. The Repatriation of African Artifacts: Fleeting Illusion. (March 31, 2021). Retrieved from



  • Is It Time to Repatriate Africa’s Looted Art? – Foreign Policy
  • Benin Bronzes: Germany to return looted artefacts to Nigeria- BBC
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About the author

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Tadese Faforiji

I am Tadese Faforiji, a history student of the prestigious Adekunle Ajasin University, Akungba-Akoko, Ondo State- 21st-century University, properly called. I am a blogger and an avid writer.

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