The skulls were said to be obtained from Belgium's inhumane colonial rule of Congo Free State between 1885-1908. The auction house gave a public apology after they were forced to take down its ad:
“The Vanderkindere auction house sincerely wishes to apologise for having offered at auction a lot comprising three human skulls linked to the Belgian colonial past, and that is why these are imperatively withdrawn from the sale and will be repatriated,” they said in a press release on Wednesday morning.
“We in no way endorse the suffering and humiliation suffered by the peoples who are victims of these colonial acts. We once again present our deep regrets to anyone who has been bruised and injured by the sale of this lot.”
The auction house then said the skulls would be bought with equity, at about €1,000, and then a repatriation would be organised.
However, the statement was met with scepticism by the “Memorial Colony” collective, who requested that the Belgian government step in to seize the skulls and ensure the bones, causes of death and other relevant information are authenticated.
“it is simply a scandalous sale, it is a sale of the skulls of victims of colonization... This auction is a bit like killing them a second time in fact,” Geneviève Kaninda, the coordinator of the Collective, passionately expressed.
Kaninda took a step further by asking for a legal examination of the case to be carried out.
"Normally the penal code forbids the concealment of a corpse, which is why this auction is of great concern to us, and I think that a clear answer is needed in relation to a legal framework for all the remains of these people from the colonial period who are on Belgian soil," she said.
On the contrary, Serge Hutry, a representative of the auction house justified the decision to include the skulls in the sale in the first place. “We were within the law, but there is a human side which plays and there’s a reason why most of the people reacted on Twitter by saying ‘how can you sell human skulls?’” said Hutry.
The office of Thomas Dermine, the Secretary of State in charge of Scientific Policy, confirmed that since the skulls previously belonged to a private collector, the government could not step in.
After the mass reactions against the auction, Belgian political party Ecolo – also called the Green Party – declared its intentions to illegalize the trade in human remains.
Investigating Belgium’s Colonial Past
Meanwhile, recent times have seen a special parliamentary committee look into Belgium’s troubling colonial past, commonly referred to as the “Congo Commission”.
One of the recommendations made by the committee chair Wouter De Vriendt highlights the problem of human remains from that era and proposes their return, on the basis of the “Home Project” of the Africa Museum in Tervuren.
The Home Project focuses on the identification and restitution of the many human remains in the museum’s possession.
Likewise, Ecolo hopes to encourage restitution by private collectors who may also be in possession of these remains, in addition to making the trade illegal.
" It is inconceivable to me that the trade in human remains is legal today in Belgium. The remains, also those of people killed during the colonial period, are entitled to absolute respect. One does not sell corpses. That must change, " said the party co-president Rajae Maouane in a press release co-signed by the deputy Guillaume Defossé.
During Belgium’s mission to its former colonies (DRC, Burundi and Rwanda), the delegation of the parliamentary committee brought forward this issue, especially with students from the University of Kinshasa.
" The human remains are not only scientific pieces but also and above all elements allowing to connect with the ancestors and in a way to restore the Congolese, Rwandan and Burundian soul,” they wrote.
This is not the first time a Belgian institution's actions has shone light on the issue of human remains from the colonial era.
In 2020, the Free University of Brussels (ULB) signed an agreement with DRC’s Lubumbashi University to return the Congolese human skulls in its possession.
The Belgian Chamber has yet to come to an agreement on how the country should apologize to its former colonies; whether through a symbolic restitution such as a day of commemorations, and/or with economic reparations.
Sources: Euronews, Moustique