#rp23 keynote speaker Bénédicte Savoy: About money, cultural assets and their restitution

10.05.2023 - The art historian and provenance researcher gives voice to the demands for the return of plundered art from the colonial era.
Bénédicte in einer roten Bluse
Photo Credit
Maurice Weiss

Bénédicte Savoy deals with uncomfortable truths that no museum likes to talk about openly. The circumstances under which her collection objects found their way to Europe are diverse; however, many artefacts originate from raids and looting. As a result, a massive accumulation of art objects from former European colonies has found their way into Western museums. To date, about 90 per cent of Africa's cultural heritage is located outside the continent. 

The work of art historian Bénédicte Savoy consists of compiling historically proven facts about art theft and looted art. As an internationally renowned provenance researcher, she raises the question of the violent origins of these artefacts and calls for them to be made visible. But that alone is not enough: for the scientist, transparency must also be followed by consequences – she advocates restitution, i.e. the return of looted art to the countries of origin. That is why she advocates a radically new perspective in dealing with works of art and artefacts. Together with the Senegalese scholar Felwine Sarr, Bénédicte advised French President Emmanuel Macron in 2018 on the conditions of restitution of African cultural assets from France to the countries of origin. Both were named among the 100 most influential people of 2021 by Time Magazine. As she explain in her recent book "Africa's Struggle for Its Art. History of a Postcolonial Defeat", this restitution process was already initiated in the 1960s – but was also fought with the same arguments as today. The debate came to nothing and was eventually forgotten. With her research, Bénédicte is helping to revive the debate on restitution. 

Bénédicte Savoy is the head of the Department of Modern Art History at the Technical University of Berlin. In 2016-2021, she also held a professorship at the Collège de France in Paris on the cultural history of artistic heritage in Europe from the 18th to the 20th century. She has received numerous awards for her research and academic teaching, including the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation in 2016. From 2015 to 2017, she was a member of the international expert advisory board of the Humboldt Forum in Berlin. She left the panel out of frustration that it only met twice during this period and that it was "a mere pro forma event". In 2022, she was inducted into the French Legion of Honour. For her expertise on the history of colonialism and its effects, she received the Berlin Science Prize on 2 May 2023.

We eagerly await Bénédicte's insights on money, art, cultural assets and restitution at #rp23.

Von Geld, Kunst, Kulturgütern und deren Restitution

Bénédicte Savoy

Museen sind politische Orte. Die Akkumulation von Kulturgütern, die sie spätestens seit dem 19. Jh. betreiben, ist eine Form der Akkumulation von (symbolischem und realem) Kapital. Von Cicero über Napoleon und Mobutu Sese Seko: Seit der Antike machen Debatten über die Restitutionen von Kulturgütern diese Verknüpfung sichtbar.
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