The Swiss authorities have aborted an auction of the villa belonging to the late Congolese dictator, Mobutu Sese Seko, after it failed to attract any bids.
Bidding was meant to start at SFr2.5 million ($1.5 million) for the 30-room Villa Les Miguettes, which was valued at SFr4.25 million. But local bankruptcy authorities called off the auction after an hour because nobody entered a bid.
The villa will now either be auctioned at a later date, but with no minimum price, or sold to a buyer who makes what is considered a reasonable offer.
A property speculator, Denis Burrus, told swissinfo that prospective buyers were shying away from the public auction. "I know of people who are interested, but they would want to buy [the villa] on the normal market," said Burrus, who claimed he was acting on behalf of the international auction firm, Sotheby's.
The five-hectare estate in Savigny, 20 kilometres east of Lausanne, was impounded by the Swiss authorities in May 1997 as part of a general freeze of Mobutu's assets.
Ousted from office
The former dictator of Zaire, which has since been renamed the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), was ousted from office in 1997 and died shortly afterwards in exile in Morocco.
The head of the bankruptcy office in the district of Lavaux, Jean-Pierre Allaz, began Thursday's proceedings in the town hall in Savigny by listing privileged creditors who would stand to receive the bulk of the proceeds from the sale.
Apart from government taxes and insurance charges totalling some SFr500,000 ($300,000), which haven't been paid since 1997, a Swiss citizen, Martin Hofmann, is due to receive SFr2,3 million from the sale.
Hofmann, who says he took 25,000 official photo portraits of the former dictator, claimed in 1997 that Mobutu owed him SFr4 million.
The failed auction on Thursday revealed for the first time that Hofmann was entitled to SFr2,3 million from the sale of the villa. A court in canton Vaud ruled in March that an unnamed private party was entitled to the money.
Congolese citizens surprised
Congolese citizens present at the auction said they were surprised that such a high proportion of the sale should go to a private Swiss citizen.
"We'll have to analyse this, we don't know what [Hofmann's] bills entail," a representative in Switzerland of the Union for Democracy and Social Progress (UDPS), Michel Okongo Lomena, told swissinfo. The UDPS is currently involved in coalition talks with the government of Joseph Kabila in the DRC.
Lomena objected to the very principle of the auction. "Mobutu's wealth was looted from the Congolese people. We would have liked to see an agreement by which our people would have been represented alongside private creditors."
But it wasn't a problem that concerned only Switzerland, he said. "We level the same criticism at all Western countries where Mobutu kept assets."
The Swiss authorities have frozen about $3.5 million in accounts belonging to Mobutu and his associates.
by Markus Haefliger