A Belgian auction house apologized for planning to sell three 19th century human skulls from the Democratic Republic of Congo that were tied to Belgium’s colonial past.
After mounting criticism, the Vanderkindere Auction House canceled the sale Wednesday, saying, “We in no way support the suffering and humiliation that people were subjected to during the colonial period.”
The skulls reportedly belonged to people killed between January 1893 and May 1894. One of the skulls features engraved text from a French doctor who noted the skull was from a victim of human sacrifice, Belgian news site VRT reported.
Vanderkindere planned on using Drouot.com -- a French auctioning site known for its sale of rare art pieces and luxury goods. As of Thursday morning, the Vanderkindere auction remained live on the site but no longer featured images or descriptions of the skulls.
The Belgian magazine Paris Match first reported on the sale Wednesday, sparking outrage from Belgian activists. A Brussels-based rights group that educates the public about colonial-era atrocities called for the skulls to be seized by authorities and “conserved in an appropriate way and with dignity.”
The trade of human remains is legal in Belgium, according to a member of parliament interviewed by The Brussels Times, but the country’s Ecolo party is set to propose legislation to ban the practice.
Belgium colonized and occupied what is today the Democratic Republic of the Congo from 1885 to 1960. Historians estimate that millions of natives died by torture or disease during colonization.
In recent years, activists in Belgium have ignited larger conversations about the atrocities committed during the colonial period, but Brussels remains divided on whether to formally apologize to the Congolese via reparations.
The View From France
In recent years, activists have also called out France for holding auctions on artifacts collected during the country’s colonial period.
Hotel Drouot -- which operates Drouot.com and is Europe’s oldest auction house -- has been ridden with numerous scandals over the years, such as allegedly selling stolen art and treasures.
Earlier this month, Vietnam negotiated with France to stop the auction of a 19th century imperial seal valued at $3 million, eventually purchasing it back from France.
Paris’s iconic Musée de l’Homme, or Museum of Mankind, has 18,000 skulls kept in storage, including the remains of African tribal chiefs, Cambodian rebels, and indigenous people from Ocenia, a New York Times investigation found.
Authorities have attempted to keep the identities of the remains confidential, and the French government lacks protocols on how to properly curate and repatriate the remains compared to neighboring countries.