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Dorotheum attempts second auction of African artefacts – is provenance any better this time?

Viennese Auction House, Dorotheum, last year auctioned an assortment of African artefacts [1], but questions were raised about the unclear provenance of many of the items.

Another auction is planned this year, but will the provenance of the items be any clearer than at the previous one?

From Kwame Opoku via email.


Dorotheum, the Viennese auction house, is holding another auction of African artefacts on 2 April, 2012. Readers may recall that in an article entitled Auction of Arican Art by Dorotheum, Vienna. But what are the Provenances of the Artefacts? reference was made to the absence of proper and adequate provenance for most of the artefacts which were part of the African collection of the late Prof. Rudolph Leopold, founder of the Leopold Museum. Museum of Modern Art, Vienna.

The artefacts in this second auction raise the same problems as the first. The provenance given is often extremely vague e.g. from the “collection of a German missionary”, “Belgian collection,” “Austrian collection”, “private South African collection,” etc. This imprecision does not facilitate the determination of the mode of acquisition of the artefacts and their legitimacy. Nor do we have any precise dates. Thus we cannot follow the history of the ownership of the object.

We note from the catalogue of the exhibition, available on line in English, entries for the following countries:
Angola – 1
Burkina Faso-11
Cameroon – 9
Côte d’Ivoire-13
Democratic Republic of Congo – 56
Ethiopia – 6
Ghana – 3
Madagascar – 2
Mali – 7
Nigeria – 37
Sudan – 3
Tanzania – 4
Togo – 1

In connection with the previous auction, an item that may have escaped the attention of some readers,(It was in French) and reported in Museum Security Network and AFRICOM-L, was the successful recovery by the Democratic Republic of Congo of two stolen artefacts that had been put up for auction by the Dorotheum, Vienna.

According to the Director-General of the Institut des Musées nationaux du Congo (IMNC), Joseph Ibongo, two artefacts had been stolen from the Institut between 1997 and 2000. An Austrian judicial decision that the objects should be returned made it necessary for Mrs Elisabeth Leopold, widow of Dr. Rudolph Leopold, to enter into contact with the authorities of the Institute.

Mrs. Leopold had inherited the objects from her late husband who died in 2010 but she was unable to provide receipt or other documentary evidence attesting to the purchase of the objects.

The lawyer of the Leopold family contacted the Embassy of the Democratic Republic of Congo in Germany. Mrs Leopold had declared herself willing to return the objects in question to the Institute, demanding guarantees that they will be sent to the legitimate owner.

The Director of the Institute provided all proofs and information to Mrs Leopold and went to Vienna to perform all the required formalities for the transfer to IMNC. The transfer of the objects was effected by way of diplomacy.

The success of the Democratic Republic is further evidence that restitution can be effected through judicial and other channels by the African States that pursue the matter with some consistency and perseverance.

Kwame Opoku, 28 April 2012.