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Theoretical and critical views on decolonization

Colonial collections, restitution and issues of inequality

Collections coloniales, restitution et questions d’inégalité
Jos van Beurden
p. 53-62


Cette contribution soulève trois questions concernant les collections provenant des régions coloniales. La première concerne la répartition du pouvoir sur la recherche de provenance de telles collections entre le Nord global et le Sud global. La deuxième concerne le silence des marchands d’art et des collectionneurs privés du Nord global concernant leurs possessions et la manière dont elles ont été acquises, ce qui rend difficile pour les anciennes colonies d’en savoir davantage à leur sujet. La troisième question porte sur la manière dont les gouvernements du Sud global d’une part, et les maisons royales traditionnelles, les communautés d’origine et autres acteurs infra-étatiques d’autre part, gèrent les collections après leur restitution.

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  • 1 This contribution is based on: Beurden, J. van. (2024). The Empty Showcase Syndrome. Tough Question (...)

1Recent years have seen several anniversaries of international regulations on cultural heritage: one in 2023, one in 2020 and one in 2022.1 Since 1998, claimants of treasures lost in the Nazi period can rely upon a number of declarations and principles – to start with, the Washington Principles for Dealing with Nazi-looted Art – and upon restitution advisory committees in several European countries and in North America. Although non-binding, they have raised public awareness and had a moral effect in favour of the Nazi victims. As a result, the efforts to recover art looted from private and public collections across the globe have grown “exponentially” (Halgren, 2023).

2Parties duped by the ongoing illicit trade in art and antiquities got recourse at the 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and with the implementation of laws at a national level. In spite of the many years it took northern art market countries to accede to the convention, it has made almost every major museum in the West “refuse to acquire material that left its country of origin after that year [1970] without full documentation” (Alexander, 2020).

3The United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), accepted in 2007, supports First Nations in settler-states Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States of America and Indigenous minorities in other countries to claim lost ancestral remains and funerary objects. Although non-binding, UNDRIP has clear suggestions for repatriation and “has been recognized as bearing a legal significance which goes much beyond its formal status of declaration of principles [… and] as being the instrument of reference when the rights of Indigenous peoples are concerned” (Lezerini, 2022).

  • 2 Campfens, E. (2021). Cross-border claims to cultural objects – Property or heritage? Eleven. p. 165

4At this moment, former distance-colonies of European powers have no anniversary to celebrate, as they lack general instruments such as conventions, declarations or principles for claiming treasures lost in the colonial period. The 1970 UNESCO Convention has no retroactive effect, and apart from a single exception, they have not investigated the options that UNDRIP could offer.2 Therefore, they depend upon bilateral negotiations and former colonisers’ willingness and moral sense to return collections.

  • 3 This has been described elaborately in Beurden, J. van. (2017). Treasures in Trusted Hands – Negoti (...)

5Yet, many of them reclaimed involuntary lost cultural heritage long before their independence. This led to incidental returns only during the transfer of sovereignty. In the decades thereafter, four former colonial powers returned objects: Australia to Papua New Guinea, Denmark to Iceland and Greenland, Belgium to the Democratic Republic of Congo and the Netherlands to Indonesia. Australia and Denmark were fairly generous while the Netherlands and Belgium minimised their returns.3

6Today, the landscape is changing. Restitution and provenance research are ‘in’. European governments and museums develop new policies. Former colonies, such as Indonesia, India, Sri Lanka, Tanzania and Ghana have established their own restitution policies and are preparing claims. Most writers point to French President Emmanuel Macron, who promised in November 2017 in Burkina Faso a radical new restitution policy. Although he deserves credit for being the first European head of state to be so outspoken, the emphasis on his role wrongly obscures the role of leaders in the Global South in restitutions: one year before Macron spoke, Patrice Talon, the new president of the Republic of Benin, submitted a large claim for war booty in French museums and Macron built on Talon’s work. Moreover, in 2010 the Benin Dialogue Group, consisting of the cultural authorities of Nigeria, representatives of the Benin Kingdom and some major museums in Europe, had started to discuss the future of the extensive collections of Beninese objects in Europe. In other words, a new phase in the postcolonial restitution discourse began much earlier and, all in all, most European countries have taken at most two steps forward and at least one step back.

7Macron’s speech was followed by a report by Felwine Sarr and Bénédicte Savoy (2018), which was a big step forward in favour of claimant countries, and recently by the restrictive guideline of former Louvre director Jean-Luc Martinez (2023), which was a step back. Martinez uses a narrow definition of looted art, which states that weapons could be legally seized according to French law at the time, and, thus, there is no need to return them. According to Martinez’s advice, cultural goods – such as books and clothes of rebel leaders – and loot handed by private parties to a French museum should be given back. Out of the 85,000 objects in the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, only 300 have been looted, according to his definition, and can be claimed and returned. This figure reminds one of the relatively small number of 883 objects out of the 80,000 objects from the Democratic Republic of Congo in the AfricaMuseum in Tervuren, which have been earmarked as war booty and therefore are eligible for return. A narrow definition of war booty is also being used in Belgium (Demarsin, 2022). The new French report emphasises that former colonies must ensure that returned works be well kept and exhibited after their return. In the eyes of former French colonies, Martinez brings paternalism back on the stage.

8Translated to the context of Indonesia and the Netherlands, Martinez’s narrow definition would mean that the Dutch government would have refused to transfer two daggers of great cultural-historical value – one had belonged to Javanese rebel leader Prince Diponegoro (1785-1855), the other to the Balinese King of Klunkung (d. 1908) - to Indonesia. The first one, however, was returned in 2020, the second one in 2023. In dealing with claims, the Netherlands government applies the concept of “involuntary loss of possession”, which is much broader and does not only include confiscated weapons but also, for instance, smuggled and confiscated items.

First thesis

The decolonisation of collections from colonial areas cannot be finished without the decolonisation of the provenance research into these collections and requires a paradigm shift

9One characteristic of the current phase in the restitution debate is increased attention in the academic world and museums for provenance research. It has become a buzzword, not only in the great ethnological, natural history and art history museums and university libraries but also in smaller institutions and among private collectors and dealers. No museum, exhibition-opening or conference passes, no art fair opens where pieces from a colonial context can be seen, without the words provenance research coming up. Universities in European countries offer courses in it. Manuals and handbooks are published. Provenance researchers are recruited with advertisements. Freelancers are in the starting blocks, extra motivated because this kind of research is about a burning social problem, is exciting and educational, and leads to special histories and places. Provenance research also receives prominent attention in new restitution policy of European governments.

The cannon

10The case-study that supports this thesis is about the provenance research process into a ceremonial cannon in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam. The cannon had belonged to the Ceylonese King of Kandy and was captured by soldiers of the Dutch East India Company in 1765 (Kamardeen & van Beurden, 2022).

11In 2017, the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam initiated a pilot-project for a better provenance research methodology and selected 10 objects from its collection for this, the cannon being one of them. It conducted archival research into the cannon inside the Netherlands for two years. It was the kind of scientific work that many museums do. To finalise the research, it sent an employee to Sri Lanka in 2019 to collect additional information. The employee had a list of Sri Lankan experts, one of whom was professor Naazima Kamardeen of Colombo University’s Law department.

12In the Dutch media, the Rijksmuseum had created the impression that the research, although intended for developing a better research-methodology, could lead to restitution. That impression also existed in Sri Lanka. Once in Colombo, however, the Rijksmuseum employee stated that the purpose of the visit only concerned the research method. Whether the cannon would be returned was to be decided by its owner, the state of the Netherlands.

  • 4 Beurden, J. van. (2024), The Empty Showcase Syndrome, p. 69.

13This disappointed Kamardeen and some of her colleagues. Why do all this research, while it had been known since 1975 that the cannon is a clear case of a looted piece and that Sri Lanka had already claimed it earlier (Silva, 1975)? Director Taco Dibbits of the Rijksmuseum showed understanding for their disappointment but, when speaking to him, he also emphasized the importance of good cooperation and gave his word that Sri Lankans would be able to express their view and research “on an equal basis” (van Beurden, 2024).4

14But it was precisely this equivalence that worried Kamardeen and other experts in Sri Lanka, who feared that their contributions would become more of an exercise without equality, a fear reinforced by the Rijksmuseum’s long questionnaires about, for instance, the materials from which the cannon was made. Dibbits was sympathetic to this complaint: “The museum understands the critical attitude and distrust towards Western museums and other institutions that in the past did not cooperate with provenance questions and restitution requests from countries of origin” (Dibbits, 2024, as cited in van Beurden, 2024). Kamardeen’s worry is not unique but exists in other former colonies too.

15While for many museums provenance research as a mostly unilateral, scientific activity is something of the past, it now needs an additional dimension: that of the conversation with those to whom the cannon once belonged, which makes it also into a societal activity. To make this mix a success requires a different vision and different competencies.

16To find the right track for provenance research we have to go to the core of decolonisation and restitution: the building of trust and the breaking down of asymmetric power relations. This requires a paradigm shift in which former colonies are given decisively more power over this type of research.

17Currently, there are many provenance research programs in the Global North. The initiators involve experts from the Global South and invite cultural authorities in the Global South, sometimes to point to collections or objects which they want to be investigated. They give scholarships to experts from the South. At the same time, most of these programs are conceived in the Global North. They are led by established institutes and experts in the North. They must meet the standards of the Northern academic world and of Northern subsidy-providers. These programs are institutionalized before they have even started. This one-sided institutionalization is difficult to relate to the pursuit of trust and equality. It is an ingrained imbalance that gives Northern institutions an unavoidable advantage over their counterparts in the South.

18At the workshop in Marburg, Jimson Sanga, anthropologist at the Iringa Boma Museum in Tanzania, said:

Now we are often an extension or appendage of Northern programmes, while we want to develop our own research community that tells our own story about collective memory, kinship and identity. We have to do that, apart from the North, by ourselves. And yes, sometimes we need for this ancestral remains and old weapons that are now in Europe.

19Tanzania is not unique in this. Other former colonies also want to decide for themselves which collections are to be researched, what are the main questions, who is to do the research. They want to set up their own research community. This also requires a shift in the control over the money made available by Northern governments and funding agencies.

20Another argument for a paradigm shift is that, if European countries admit that many items from former colonies have a problematic origin, or that former colonies, certainly morally, are more entitled to them or that these items are more at home there than in the Global North, they should also take the initiative in examining them. It’s about ‘their’ pieces, pieces that monarchs, families or peoples still use in their ceremonies or rituals, pieces that can be reactivated in their old function.

21There is a third argument in favour of a paradigm shift. In current provenance research programmes, too often the central question is whether a piece may have been looted or lost involuntarily. Due to the narrowing of the question to one between good and bad, a lot of provenance research threatens to automatically become an investigation into European actions, the European perpetrators are central and, therefore, also the European sources. So, it is again about the former colonisers. If the central question is instead about the importance of an object for the formerly colonised, then the research is also structured differently.

Second thesis

Provenance researchers have a one-sided focus on items in public collections and forget what is possessed by private collectors and art dealers

22There are many objects, manuscripts and ancestral remains from colonial contexts with private collectors and in the art trade. No one knows how many pieces there are, how valuable these pieces are and how they were once acquired. Only a small portion is visible: pieces that have ended up in museums as a gift or long-term loan; they can be found on museum websites. For most others, one depends upon lucky hits at antiquarian shops, art fairs and catalogues of physical or Internet sales. Nowadays, the private collectors and art dealers who own these pieces claim to do provenance research into them, but most of them limit their investigations to checking whether a piece is on a database of stolen objects. Only in exceptional cases is this research done more elaborately.

Two daggers

  • 5 Translation by author.

23In November 2022, a few months before the 2023 TEFAF in the Dutch city of Maastricht, art dealers Röell & Zebregs – with branches in Amsterdam and Maastricht and specialising in art from colonial areas of the 17th to the 19th century – mailed me with a tough question: “If we have daggers – krisses – that may have been stolen from the bodies of fallen Indonesian fighters, can these be claimed by Indonesia? And are we then legally (apart from our morals) obliged to transfer them?” The daggers at stake were two centuries-old “royal gold krisses”, so precious that they “should be in the Rijksmuseum Amsterdam as part of the Lombok treasure” (D. Zebregs, personal communication, 7 November 2022).5

24The Lombok treasure is comparable to the Benin treasures seized by British soldiers in 1897. In 1894, Dutch colonial soldiers had waged war against the monarch of Tjakranegara on the island of Lombok in the Indonesian archipelago, obtaining 1,000 ceremonial weapons, snuffboxes and jewellery; 230 kilograms of gold coins; 7,000 kilograms of silver money and 400 ancient Javanese manuscripts. It is war booty, and the dealers write: “We will ensure that the krisses (whether or not against the purchase price) go back to Lombok”. But this war booty is in the hands of a private party and the restitution policies of most European countries, including the Netherlands, concern only state collections and contain no means to put pressure on private parties.

25Tim Repatriasi in Jakarta, the team that settles claims for the return of colonial items, is keen to retrieve all Lombok treasures. Röell & Zebregs contacted someone close to the Tim Repatriasi and are – after a conversation – even more convinced of the desirability of a return of both stabbing weapons.

26When the prestigious TEFAF opened, the dealers’ catalogue announced the sale of “a pair of royal, gold, and silver krisses belonging to a nobleman and his wife”. The antique dealers had written “The Lombok Treasure” above it. The officer in question smuggled them to the Netherlands and stored them in the attic of his home, where they remained after his death. Recently, his granddaughter thought it was time to get rid of them. That is how they ended up at the art fair (Röell & Zebregs, 2023).

27In the catalogue, the antique dealers added a short sentence: they will only sell them to selected buyers. Asked what they mean, they say “only to a private or public party in Indonesia” (Röell & Zebregs, 2023). Finally, they succeeded in finding a selected buyer: a European benefactor who was willing to pay the price and then donate them to a party in Indonesia. At the time of writing (February 2024), the two weapons are still in the Netherlands and there is no prospect of their return to Indonesia.

  • 6 Translation by author.

28This story about weapons from a colonial region in private possession can be multiplied by many others. It is, therefore, remarkable that most European governments, museums and academics close their eyes to items with a possibly disputable history in the holdings of art dealers and private collectors. They draw a thick line between public and this sort of private collections, while in practice this line is very thin, it is an “artificial separation” that disrupts “the socio-ethical discussion” on looted items in the private sector (Drieënhuizen, 2023).6 Many museums depend upon private collections for filling their showcases or making temporary exhibitions.

29Going back to the two krisses at the art fair, suppose that Indonesia claims back these weapons originating from the Lombok war booty - it has no chance of restitution because the Netherlands has no policy on this. At the same time, Indonesia has already been successful in claiming similar weapons and other items of the Lombok treasure that were part of the Dutch state collection. From the perspective of a former colony, this must be strange.

Third thesis

Frictions between national governments and regional actors in former colonies become the next hurdle in the restitution discourse

30There is a positive development in that governments in former colonies – think of Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tanzania, Nigeria, Namibia and many Latin American countries – are setting up own restitution policies and committees and provenance research programs. In their plans, the national museums usually play a central role. A major challenge for them is to figure out where objects, manuscripts and ancestral remains will go after their return or repatriation. Traditional royal families, communities of origin and other regional actors are eager to retrieve certain historical and cultural treasures or ancestral remains. How do different countries deal with this friction?

Benin dialogue

31It may sound strange, but among African countries, Nigeria can perhaps be called the provisional winner of the current restitution phase. The Kingdom of Benin, the federal National Commission for Museums and Monuments (NCMM) and the government of Edo state in which the kingdom is located are finally seeing rewarded their decades-long efforts to recover Benin objects from European countries.

  • 7 See for example Layiwola, P. and Olorunbyomi, S. (2010). – Art and restitution questi (...)

32Several factors have contributed to this. To begin with, it has been the firmness of the Benin court and the other actors to retrieve pieces. For a long time, they have been convinced of their right to it and have done a lot of research themselves. Experts such as Peju Layiwola, art historian and relative of the Oba (traditional king) of Benin, and Folarin Shyllon (d. 2021) of the University of Ibadan, who attended negotiations as an expert, have continually insisted on this right.7

33A second factor has been the intention of both the Nigerian actors and some European museums to continue the dialogue they had started in 2010: the Benin Dialogue, a real achievement. Initially, the dialogue had two goals: to exchange knowledge and intensify cooperation, and to make restitutions. After almost a decade, however, the second goal was no closer. The reason was that the most retentive link in the chain of European museums – the British Museum in London – set the pace. The imperial moloch was willing to lend Benin objects to Nigeria but not to return any, while other museums – in Germany, in Great Britain and the Netherlands – were. Only when the Benin Dialogue Group decided to let go of the restitution target – and I vividly remember Folarin Shyllon’s indignation about this move – did more become possible, be it that it had to be arranged bilaterally. As a result, Benin objects have been going home since 2021.

34The third and final factor is that the Nigerians have found a solution to the question of to whom returned objects will go. It has taken years to come to this. Each of the three actors wanted to be in control of the return-process and the objects: the federal government, the government of the Edo state and the Benin court itself. At the end of March 2023, this haggling came to an end when outgoing President Muhammadu Buhari stated that the Oba of Benin will become “owner, guardian and manager” of Benin objects that come back from abroad. The Oba decides where they go (Federal Republic of Nigeria, 2023).

35Nigeria is not the only country that faces this friction. Globally, there is some progress. The most advanced is New Zealand, where the government, the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington and Māori communities have defined their roles in the process. The three stakeholders are effective in their campaign to repatriate tattooed Māori heads. The governments of several other former colonies – take Indonesia and Cameroon for example – have designated one museum to receive returned items: the Museum Nasional Indonesia in Jakarta and the Historic Museum of Bamoun in Cameroon. Some governments make exceptions for religious objects that are returned if the holy place from where they disappeared from is known. Examples of this policy are Nepal, Ethiopia and Cambodia. It is a complicated discussion in many countries, and it is hard to satisfy all statal and sub-statal stakeholders.


36Before coming to a conclusion, a few more words have to be said about a new emerging conservatism in European countries such as Germany, France and the Netherlands. For some years, these countries appeared to be making steps forward, but these steps are in danger.

37The way in which Nigeria solved the question of to whom to return? created quite some commotion in Germany. The transfer of the property title of over 1,100 Beninese objects to Nigeria, and thus to the Oba of Benin – a private person – upset the right-wing Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and the Christian-Democratic Union (CDU) in the Bundestag. A number of academics also took part in this debate. The opponents of the Nigerian decision called the transfer of property titles a fiasco; objects should be given back to a government and not to a private party. The proponents counterargued that the opponents were trying to create a scandal that was not a scandal and that it was up to Nigeria and the Nigerians to decide what happens with returned objects (van Beurden, 2024).

  • 8 Translation by author.

38The November 2023 elections in the Netherlands brought victory for right-wing parties. The radical-right wing Party for the Freedom PVV came out as the winner, and a PVV member became the Speaker of the Second Chamber. Earlier in that year, the same MP – then still an opposition member – had strongly opposed restitutions to Indonesia and Sri Lanka. He called the party of the secretary of state in question a party of “cultural barbarians”, the body that had advised the secretary of state a “sell-out committee”, and he called for “the dismissal” and even “criminal prosecution” of the museum directors who had participated in it (Tweede Kamer, Vaste Kamercommissie voor Cultuur, 2023).8

39Earlier, the advice of Jean-Luc Martinez to French President Macron was also mentioned as a step back. There is a lot of talk about whether the British Museum is changing its conservative relation to claims from former colonies, but there is at the time of writing no prospect of a concrete change.

40Are we approaching a moment in history where the restitution discourse can be hijacked by, say, anti-decolonisation parties or neo-colonials in Europe?

41Restitution of colonial collections is more and more seen as part of the much broader decolonisation, which is a rearranging of relations between countries and nations in the Global North and the Global South with an aim to diminish inequality and undo a small part of the injustice of the colonial past. So far, other aspects of decolonisation – those dealing with the physical violence and slave trade of the colonial period and the effect and impact of these on the present through racism and discrimination – have dominated the political discourse.

42That we are making progress in the restitution dossier is undeniable. At the same time, one should watch out for complacency. Only a start has been made, and much remains to be done. Restitution is not a warm bath or a process with a hug. It is hard work. We will have to overcome colonial attitudes in ourselves. We will have to decolonise both colonial collections and provenance research programs. Sometimes at our own cost! We will have to break down the artificial walls between public and private collections. And remembering how much time colonial powers have needed to reach the present phase, we will have to give time to countries, peoples and forces in the Global South to bring their houses on order. Academic institutions and museums in the Global North are the ones who have to take the first steps in trust-building and equality.

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1 This contribution is based on: Beurden, J. van. (2024). The Empty Showcase Syndrome. Tough Questions about Cultural Heritage from Colonial Regions. Amsterdam University Press.

2 Campfens, E. (2021). Cross-border claims to cultural objects – Property or heritage? Eleven. p. 165.

3 This has been described elaborately in Beurden, J. van. (2017). Treasures in Trusted Hands – Negotiating the Future of Colonial Cultural Objects. Sidestone Press, chapters 7-11.

4 Beurden, J. van. (2024), The Empty Showcase Syndrome, p. 69.

5 Translation by author.

6 Translation by author.

7 See for example Layiwola, P. and Olorunbyomi, S. (2010). – Art and restitution question. Wy Art Editions; Shylon, F. (2019). Benin Bronzes: Something grave happened and imperial rule of law is sustaining it. Art, Antiquity and Law, 24(3).

8 Translation by author.

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Jos van Beurden

Independent Researcher – Utrecht, the Netherlands
Email: Jos.vanbeurden[at]

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