- Restitution:Debate and Action
On June 7, 2018, at 11:00 am, a press conference, organized by the private Angolan Sindika Dokolo Foundation, was held in an elegant hotel on the Grand Sablon Square in Brussels. The objective of this gathering was to publicize and celebrate the return of six objects to the National Museum of Dundo in northeastern Angola, from where they are said to have "gone missing." The pieces included a marvelous Chokwe Mwana Pwo mask (Fig. 1) and a chief's chair (Fig. 2), as well as a Chokwe pipe (Fig. 3), in addition to Shinji objects, namely a Chihongo wooden mask, a small stool, and a caryatid bowl (Figs. 4–6). This restitution ceremony is the third, following two in 2016, in Luanda at the Presidential Palace and subsequently in Paris at the Angolan Embassy; afterward, the pieces were displayed at the Iron Palace in Luanda.
Up to now, eleven objects in total have been returned to Angola of the sixty identified as having been part of the Dundo collection. To continue the search, a website will be created to facilitate identification of these migrant pieces at home and abroad. All this was initiated by a figure whose name has crossed the pages of this journal before: the Congolese-born Angolan businessman and collector of historical and contemporary art Sindika Dokolo. The work has been done mainly in conjunction with Didier Claes, one of the key African art dealers in Brussels. Dokolo's wealth has allowed him to successfully retrieve stolen pieces from collectors by backing up friendly persuasion with substantial payments (up to €50,000 for one object) that may or may not correspond to current market value.
Surprisingly (at least to me) this press conference was scheduled during the well-known annual Brussels Tribal Art Fair (formerly known as BRUNEAF), a commercial event where dealers, collectors, and museum curators from both sides of the Atlantic and beyond descend upon private art galleries to inspect and negotiate acquisition of the year's novelties on overt display or in more discreet spaces. The date may have been chosen to maximize participation, drawing a mix of attendees from the private and public sectors and providing visibility to the organizers of the event. The honored guests and speakers included the Angolan ambassador in Belgium, Georges Chikoti; the director of the National Archives of Angola, Alexandra Aparicio; and Prince Lambert Kandala Tshiyaze representing traditional Chokwe authority. Also invited were diplomats of the cultural sector from the embassies in Brussels of the Democratic Republic of Congo and of Cameroon. The Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren was represented by Director Guido Gryseels, as well as the curator of its ethnography department, Julien Volper; also attending were the director of the UNESCO office in Brussels, Paolo Fontani, and his project mananger, Oriol Freixa Matalonga; chief of the art sector of the Belgian Federal Police, Lucas Verhae-gen; representatives of major auction houses, such as Marguerite de Sabran for Sotheby's and Bruno Classens for Christie's; and a great many journalists and European collectors and dealers. Tribute was paid to the immense contribution of the late Marie-Louise Bastin, a leading Belgian scholar of the arts of Angola, although no details were provided to enlighten the less informed about her actual work on the Dundo collection and Angolan arts more widely. At the end of the presentation it was emphasized, especially by Didier Claes, that this was not only a "voluntary restitution" but also a "nonjudicial" one, and that public museum collections and the commercial art market were not in jeopardy. Only a limited number of questions were subsequently taken, and then the gathering politely drew to a close. In the days that followed, a press release announced that the meeting had been a success, as two additional pieces had been handed over to the Foundation from private holdings, a Chokwe/Lwena figure and an anthropomorphic Chokwe pipe.
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