In May the general secretary of the International Museum Council (ICOM), Elisabeth des Portes, had received reports concerning thefts at the Institut des Musées Nationaux du Zaire in Kinshasa. The assistant director, alerted by a rumour that “Mobutu’s collection had been looted,” went to the museum to check the extent of the damage and to fix makeshift bolts to the battered doors.
The Institut is located within the walls of Mobutu’s former presidential palace, away from the centre of town where exhibitions are held, and comprises the administrative departments plus warehouses where nearly 50,000 ethnographical and archaeological objects are stored, with a collection of modern and contemporary pieces as well. The offices were stripped of their furniture, computers and scientific and technical equipment but the stores were not systematically pillaged, in spite of the disorder that prevailed. The ground outside the building was littered with textiles, and inspection of the inside revealed that several major pieces had gone. One of the pieces, a rare wooden statue of the ancestor Hemba, has been exhibited in a number of countries including Switzerland and the US. Also missing is one of the twelve world famous royal Kuba Ndop statues, returned (with twenty-four others) to Zaïre in 1977 by the Musée de Tervuren in Belgium; a wisdom basket (Kwee-mishyaam ‘l) decorated with pearls, cowries and leopard skin.
Contemporary work by two celebrated Zaïrean sculptors, Lyolo and Kipenda, was also taken. “The staff of the Institute are checking the collections, which are very carefully inventoried, to get some idea of the scale of the theft,” says Elisabeth des Portes. “From the information gained so far, the looters seem to have acted very selectively: rather than taking run-of-the mill pieces, which are easier to sell on, they have chosen well-known items that are basically unsaleable.”
“This theft is senseless. These statues are so well-known to collectors that it will be extremely difficult to sell them,” adds the director general of the institute.
ICOM has mobilised its network of professionals and all those responsible for culture in Africa to monitor any illicit trade in African art. Interpol will circulate information relating to the missing objects internationally.