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Tirelessly searching for clues

Bénédicte Savoy, an art historian who teaches in Berlin, has long been studying colonial art looting and campaigning for cultural assets to be returned. 

Bettina MittelstraßBettina Mittelstraß, 12.04.2023
The art historian Bénédicte Savoy
The art historian Bénédicte Savoy © picture alliance/dpa

The prize awarded to Professor Bénédicte Savoy in Berlin in 2022 is still fairly new: theGerman Cultural Policy Prize. This is only the second time that it has been awarded by the German Cultural Council – but it meant a great deal to a very special researcher who has spent her entire career advocating a new scientific and cultural policy approach to looted art and is committed to the restitution of cultural assets.  

Three looted bronze artworks from Benin
Three looted bronze artworks from Benin © picture alliance / Daniel Bockwoldt/dpa

Return of the Benin bronzes  

Bénédicte Savoy is one of the most renowned and innovative art historians in Germany, Europe and the world. It is also thanks to her research work, commitment and persistence that Germany has returned 20 precious artworks to Nigeria – the Benin bronzes. The historic artefacts, along with many others, were stolen from the palace of the Edo Kingdom in Benin City in 1897, some ending up in German museums. However, this restitution is just the latest high point in the life of this European researcher, who from the start devoted herself to the circulation of art. In the ongoing discussion between Cairo and Berlin about the bust of Nefertiti, Bénédicte Savoy has also uncovered a whole history of European entanglements. 

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I am always interested in the perspective of those who have lost their cultural heritage.
The art historian Professor Bénédicte Savoy

At heart, Bénédicte Savoy is a European whose research also focuses on that which lies between. Her dissertation at the Université Paris 8 was also about looted art: the artworks stolen by Napoleon in Germany in around 1800. “I am always interested in the cultural transfer, appropriation, circulation and intellectual appropriation of art and the perspective and voices of those who have lost their cultural heritage in the process,” the scientist says. For her outstanding research into the paths taken by art and for tracking down facts yet to be told in the archives of this world, she was awarded in 2016 the renowned Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Prize of the German Research Foundation (DFG). 


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