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Africa’s top collector returns ancestral works to Angola

Sindika Dokolo bought back masks from owners to get the pieces home

One of Africa’s top art collectors has recovered three 19th-century indigenous works and is to return them to the Angolan museum they were stolen from decades ago.

The Congolese businessman Sindika Dokolo has made it his mission to find important works of art taken from Africa and repatriate them. 

Now his foundation has bought two ancestral female masks and a male statue, made by the Chokwe people, from private collectors in Belgium and France. The works, and many others, went missing from the Dundo Museum in north-east Angola when the country was engulfed in a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 2002. They were found in Europe by the Brussels-based dealer Didier Claes and the Parisian specialist Tao Kerefoff, who negotiated their sale to Dokolo. “We are honoured to be returning these symbolic works [to Africa],” the Congolese collector says.

The price paid by Dokolo for the three works has not been disclosed, but he told us last year that he was prepared to reimburse Western collectors who had acquired stolen art from Africa by offering them what they paid and no more. “If you want $100,000 for something you paid $30,000 for 15 years ago, I’m ready to give you $30,000. You have the choice: either you’re the superhero… or I just go after you and nail you,” he said.

The provenance of the masks was established through publications by the late Belgian art historian Marie-Louise Bastin, who catalogued the collections of the Dundo Museum. She also published numerous studies on the art of the Chokwe people, who dominated the region until the arrival of the Portuguese.

Dokolo has also assembled one of the largest collections of contemporary art from Africa and plans to display it one day in a new museum in the Angolan capital, Luanda. He is married to Isabel dos Santos, the daughter of the Angolan president, José Eduardo dos Santos; she is the richest woman in Africa, according to Forbes magazine.

Before the three works return to the museum, they have gone on show in the Currency Museum in the Angolan capital as part of the Triennale di Luanda. The occasion will celebrate 40 years of Angolan independence, a spokeswoman for Dokolo says.