FROM MALI TO THE QUAI BRANLY, THE DOGON JACKPOT MILLIONS (1/3)
– After Mali became independent, Western dealers scoured the country in search of objets d’art. Some of these works, acquired under opaque conditions, are now worth several million euros.
– We have attempted to retrace the steps of one of them, which recently entered the collections of the Musée du Quai Branly. A ‘rare Dogon sculpture depicting a maternity figure’, acquired by an art dealer who wears many hats.
What do ethnologist Marcel Griaule (1898-1956) and art dealer Hélène Leloup (born 1927) have in common? Without doubt, it is their unbounded love for the Dogons and their heritage; a very possessive love, rooted in colonial tradition.
The Dogon, settled between the Bandiagara cliffs and the south-western loop of the Niger, have particularly suffered from the attention of French ethnologists, and the legacy of Marcel Griaule continues to influence a certain way of thinking about the other, more than 70 years after his death. He remains known for the crossing of Africa from West to East that he organised between 1931 and 1933, accompanied by the writer Michel Leiris among others.
Original sin: the Dakar-Djibouti mission and the Boli theft
It was during this famous Dakar-Djibouti mission that the original sin was committed: the expedition brought back over 3,500 objects to France to add to the collections of the Musée du Trocadéro. These ‘objects’ – often sacred works – were acquired by every conceivable means: purchase, exchange, trickery, theft.
The episode of the theft of the Kono – a Bambara ritual object – is well known. Vaguely ashamed, Michel Leiris recounts the larceny in detail in his book L’Afrique fantôme. “The 10 francs were given to the chief and we left in a hurry, amid general amazement and adorned with a halo of particularly powerful and daring demons or bastards. As soon as we arrived at the stop-over [Dyabougou], we unwrapped our booty: it was an enormous mask with a vaguely animal shape, unfortunately deteriorated, but entirely covered with a crust of coagulated blood, which gives it the majesty that blood confers on all things,”
The Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac is preparing an exhibition for 2025 entitled ‘Dakar-Djibouti: contre-enquêtes’ (Dakar-Djibouti: counter-inquiries), which should “provide an opportunity to take a fresh look at the museum’s collections”. It serves as proof that the Dakar-Djibouti mission continues to raise questions about France’s relationship with Malian cultures.
One of the key pieces in this exhibition is the famous Boli Kono stolen by Griaule and his companions. The museum’s website says:“These counter-investigations re-examine the history and lessons of this mission, and in particular the circumstances in which objects, information, photographs and sound recordings were collected.”
It’s a worthwhile project and a fine profession of faith: we can only hope that it will lead to some soul-searching and to an in-depth counter-investigation into the conditions under which cultural objects – particularly Dogon artefacts – were acquired in the period immediately following independence.
While the colonial era allowed the worst abuses, the period that followed saw the emergence of a new breed of treasure hunters: well-informed opportunists who shamelessly took advantage of the legal vacuum that characterised newly-independent states. The Musée du Quai Branly, which has launched an extensive audit into the origins of its collections, would be well advised to conduct a counter-inquiry specifically into the Dogon works in its possession. Some of the finest works have found their way into the museum’s collections in a way that merits close analysis.
This is the case of the ‘rare Dogon sculpture depicting a maternity figure’, the acquisition of which was announced on 12 October 2022. As far as can be ascertained, the piece is magnificent: “This Dogon statue from the late 18th century depicts a young woman with almond-shaped eyes, carefully coiffed and wearing her traditional bronze bracelets and necklace, seated and holding a child in her lap. Her posture indicates a high status as first wife or mother of a future chief, whom she is holding seated on her left side”.
Emphasising that this piece “is considered an aesthetic masterpiece” and that it “contributes to our knowledge of the statuary of this region”, the press release is more laconic about the journey that brought the sculpture to France from Mali.
For the Quai Branly, it is better to emphasise a more valuable facet – in the literal sense – of its curriculum vitae: its endorsement by Western museum institutions. This sculpture has long been recognised as a statue whose aesthetic style and iconography are rare, and whose age has been confirmed by carbon 14 tests. It has been published since 1967 in some of the most important works on African art, and has also been shown in landmark exhibitions, such as the exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly in 2011 and ‘Sahel: Art and Empire on the Shores of the Sahara’ at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2020.
Its future is now very clear: “Exhibited at the Pavillon des Sessions at the Musée du Louvre, in the presentation devoted to exceptional artists […], it will then join the permanent exhibition at the Musée du Quai Branly.”
Ethnologist, collector and art dealer
To find out more about the emigration to France of this beautiful 68-centimetre-high sculpture, which was probably created in the south-central plateau at Kani-Gogouna, you have to contact Hélène Joubert, head of the Africa Heritage Unit at the Musée du Quai Branly, making sure you send any questions in advance.
“The information on this work has been compiled by Hélène Leloup, who carried out a number of surveys in Dogon country,” says the heritage curator. “Her approach was twofold, combining the fieldwork of an ethnologist with her knowledge as a specialist art dealer.”
Even if tracing the exact path of this masterpiece proves complex, Joubert provides a few details. “It is said to have been collected by El Hadj Mamadou Guindo, a prominent dealer from the Kani region. He was the one who put it on the market, probably in 1962, but we don’t know exactly when he first came into possession of it. No information is available before that date. In any case, he sold it to a major dealer in Bamako. At the time, knowledgeable antique dealers acted as intermediaries. The work came into the possession of Mamadou Diaw, or Diao, who often travelled to Paris. He was in contact with the major Parisian dealers and sold objects to the Musée des Arts d’Afrique et d’Océanie [MAAO] and the Musée de l’Homme,” she says.
It was a dation, not a purchase. The museum didn’t pay anything, it’s a no-cost acquisition.
“Hélène Leloup saw this object when Diao arrived in Paris between 1963 and 1964 to negotiate its sale. In the end, it was the Parisian dealer René Rasmussen [1911-1979], probably the best known after Charles Ratton [1895-1986], who first acquired it.”
“Hélène Leloup then bought it from Rasmussen, probably during the same year. It’s an object from her personal collection that has been exhibited several times,” says Hélène Joubert. “It is mentioned in Afrique noire, La création plastique [l’Univers des formes], by Jacqueline Delange and Michel Leiris, as well as in Citadelle et Mazenod’s L’art africain.”
Leiris’s name is mentioned here, but it should be pointed out that Leloup’s name is associated with the 2011 Dogon exhibition, of which she was the sole curator. The main author of this essay on African art published by Citadelle et Mazenod is none other than the art dealer Jacques Kerchache. With the complicit help of Jacques Chirac and the finance inspector Jacques Friedmann, Kerchache presided over the birth of the Musée du Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac.
Curator Joubert is enthusiastic and full of praise for the new acquisition, a ‘unique piece’ that joins the 6910 Dogon works in the museum’s collections. How was it acquired? “It was a dation, not a purchase,” says Joubert. “The museum didn’t pay anything, it’s a no-cost acquisition.”
Now that it has entered the museum’s national collections, its value is no longer commercial, but museological.
But what exactly is a dation? “It’s a provision that allows a private individual to pay taxes, such as inheritance tax, with a gift,” says Héléne Joubert. In this case, the French government agreed to allow Leloup’s tax to be converted into a donation of a Dogon statue of equivalent value to the Musée du Quai Branly.
Given the value of classical African art in recent years, the general public and Malians in particular may legitimately wonder what the value of such a work, which left the country in the early 1960s, might be. “I can’t give you the value of this piece, it’s confidential,” says Hélène Joubert.
Faced with this refusal of transparency, a long search began to obtain a financial evaluation of such a work on the market. When contacted, Marguerite de Sabran, former director of the African and Oceanic art department at Sotheby’s, author of a thesis on early African sculpture (under the supervision of Philippe Dagen, an academic, journalist at Le Monde and exhibition curator for the Musée du Quai Branly), and current CEO of SabranSAS (a company specialising in consulting services, expertise and trading in works of art from Africa and Oceania), was open to discussion… until the value of the work was brought up.
She would say no more, as she was “too close to the case”, instead directing us to Alexis Maggiar, director of Christie’s African, Oceanic and American Art Department. Although a specialist in the field – Christie’s is an auction house – Maggiar was politely reluctant to appraise the work in question. The best we could get was a “certainly more” when the figure of €2m ($2.1m) was suggested.
4 million euros
When we contacted the Alain de Monbrison gallery, which specialises in ancient African art, the response was terse. “Send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll get back to you,” the email said. We’re still waiting for that reply.
Another specialist, Bernard Dulon, took a slightly more elegant approach. “Hello, Mr Dulon thanks you for your message. However, he finds it difficult to comment on the valuation of this object acquired by dation. Now that it has entered the museum’s national collections, its value is no longer commercial, but museological. We strongly recommend that you contact the Musée du Quai Branly, which should be able to tell you its acquisition value, the price of which is not secret,” his email said.
We learn then, that a work that has entered a museum collection no longer has any theoretical market value… So why not contact Leloup herself? “Her state of health makes it impossible to organise an interview. She won’t accept any interviews,” says the Quai Branly’s communications department.
To make any progress, our sources had to be promised anonymity, which says a lot about the way the market for classical African art works in France. In the end, however, we were able to come up with some concordant valuations: the Dogon maternity figure could fetch between €4m and €6m. The most recent example of a real sale, a 12th/13th century Soninke statue belonging to René Rasmussen, sold at Christie’s for €1.7m on 7 December 2022. At Sotheby’s, Pierre Mollfulleda, auction director of the African and Oceanic Art Department, reports that a Dogon maternity statue from the Michel Périnet collection sold in a private sale for more than €10m.
In an email reply from the museum’s communications department concerning a possible interview with Leloup, one particular request caught our attention: the dealer and specialist in Dogon art did not want her name to be associated with the gift – even though a short search revealed that she was the owner of the work.
The minutes of the ordinary general meeting of the Friends of Quai Branly on 21 June 2021 even state that Leloup was a director between 2005 and June 2021, when she resigned. According to the Bulletin officiel n°37 of 13 October 2011, she was also appointed to the Établissement Public’s acquisitions committee in 2011.
Sponsorship from Axa
If we were to delve a little deeper into the past, at the time of the birth of the Musée du Quai Branly, an old story comes to the fore.
At the end of the Dogon exhibition (2011), there was a masterpiece, presented in all its splendour: a superb Djennenké statue. This ‘hermaphrodite figure with raised arm’ (Tanga, 10th century, Dogon Catalogue, p. 348 and cover) had been purchased seven years earlier thanks to sponsorship from the insurance company Axa and donated to the Quai Branly.
The owner, Leloup, was paid €4m to separate with it. At the time of the Dogon exhibition, Jeune Afrique revealed this price and was doubly astonished: why was the curatorship of a major exhibition entrusted to an art dealer, and why was this same dealer taking advantage of the opportunity to put up for sale a Dogon work in her possession in the Alain Bovis gallery at the same time? The article in Jeune Afrique 2610 caused quite a stir at the Quai Branly – and led to the rapid withdrawal of the work from the gallery.
As for the simultaneous sale of works in galleries and auction houses, the explanation was easy to find. Art market specialists know that when a major museum institution devotes an exhibition to a particular artist or art form, the market value of the works concerned automatically increases.
It’s a great opportunity to make a profit. For Anne Doquet, anthropologist and researcher at the IRD, “the Dogon exhibition was one of the Musée du Quai Branly’s biggest successes, and a success for Hélène Leloup herself, who was able to boost the value of her own collection”.
So it’s no coincidence that Sotheby’s has just announced the sale of the Leloup collection, in two parts (Collection Hélène Leloup, Le journal d’une pionnière, Vol 1. in Paris on 21 June, then in New York a year later, for a total estimated value of €20m), at precisely the moment when connoisseurs of the art world will be anticipating the forthcoming ‘Dakar-Djibouti: contre-inquiries’ exhibition in 2025.
The timing is perfect: the news hasn’t yet reached the general public, but potential buyers are already on their toes.
The centrepiece of the Paris sale on 21 June is a Fang statuette estimated at between €4m and €6m. There are also a number of Dogon works, including:
- a 400-year-old Niomgon figure (between €150,000 and €250,000),
- a Djennenké figure (€250,000 to €300,000),
- a Komakan figure (€200,000 to €300,000) and
- a Dogon mask (€120,000 to €180,000).
All these masterpieces of Mali’s heritage were collected by an ‘adventuress’, a ‘pioneer’, at a time when there was no law to protect them, and piled into the back of an American lorry bound for the West. Of all the objects for sale, 16 are marked ‘Leloup collection’ as their sole ‘provenance’.
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