These are the European countries returning colonial artefacts

European museums are full of looted artefacts from their colonial history – but many are starting to return what’s not theirs

Charmaine Wong
Written by
Charmaine Wong
Contributor, Time Out Travel
Artefacts in a museum
Photograph: Achim Wagner /

Museums and galleries all over Europe host vast collections of treasures and objects from around the world. From the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum to the Benin Bronzes in multiple collections across Europe and the US, these iconic artefacts help these countries – mostly former empires – rake in tourism revenue year-on-year. 

But many have come to question: how did these treasured jewels end up housed in the permanent collections of these institutions in the first place? 

Sure, many of our ancestors fought in wars and these artefacts were part of treaties, agreements and sometimes, gifts. But in a lot of cases, many were acquired through dodgy circumstances of conquest, colonialism and violence. Essentially, they were stolen.    

Now, the home countries are asking for them back and many European countries have started the repatriation process, returning looted items to their countries of origin. Earlier this month, the Netherlands handed back 484 valuable artefacts it removed from its former Asian colonies like Indonesia and Sri Lanka. This included previous metals and jewellery and the richly-decorated cannon which was looted by troops during a siege in Kandy in 1765. That’s almost 260 years ago now, it’s about time. 

They are not alone. In April this year, France released its long-awaited policy on the restitution of cultural property that essentially lays out an official guideline for returning items stolen from former colonies and during the period of Nazi rule. To date, there are more than 90,000 objects belonging to Africa alone that are still being displayed at French musées, according to a report by C'est trop!

Germany is also on the treasure repatriation train. In December last year, a set of 22 artefacts from the famous Benin Bronzes looted in the nineteenth century were handed back to Nigeria by Germany, alongside more than 1,000 other precious objects.

Belgium also handed over an inventory of 84,000 artefacts back to the Democratic Republic of Congo in February 2022 and pledged 2 million euros in funding the restitution program over the next four years.

The UK government, on the other hand, has been the most vocal about refraining from taking similar steps – though some museums have decided to go for restitution. The Horniman in London, for example, handed back objects including two Benin Bronzes to Nigeria in November last year. But there’s still a long way to go. Considering the UK holds a large number of looted objects in the British Museum, the ball is now in Britain’s court. And we’re not talking about Wimbledon.

Did you see that Silvio Berlusconi’s Italian mansion could soon open as a museum?

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