French dealer faces legal battle for buying African mask at $158 and selling it for $4.4M

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Ngi mask. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Marie-Lan Nguyen /Public domain

A French second-hand dealer is facing legal action after allegedly tricking a pensioner couple into selling an African mask they found in their ancestor’s home for €150 ($158), only to later sell it for a staggering €4.2 million ($4.4 million).

The mask, originally from Gabon, carries historical significance as it was discovered in the estate of an ancestor who served as a colonial governor. In 2021, the pensioner couple sold the mask to the dealer, unaware of its true worth. It was only after an auction six months later that they realized its significant value.

As the case went to trial, the government of Gabon formally requested a halt to the proceedings and the return of the mask, according to the BBC.

The story unfolded when the couple, who are in their 80s and residing in central France, enlisted the services of a dealer to clear their vacation home near Alès. The property once belonged to René-Victor Fournier, a colonial administrator from the early 20th Century.

During the cleaning process, a wooden mask was discovered in a cupboard. The dealer claimed he had no knowledge of its significant value when he initially purchased it.

In March 2022, the elderly couple learned about an auction in Montpelier, where they found out that the mask they had sold was a rare 19th-century “Ngi” mask created by the Fang people in Gabon. The auction catalog indicated that it had been collected around 1917 by Fournier, albeit under unknown circumstances.

The rare “Ngi” mask from the Fang people in Gabon, estimated to be one of just 10 created by Fang masters, gained exceptional attention. An expert even compared its rarity to a Leonardo da Vinci painting. Initially valued at €300,000 by the auctioneers, the mask ultimately fetched a staggering €4.2 million from an undisclosed buyer. Subsequently, the couple initiated a civil case in an attempt to void the sale.

The Gabonese government has contended that the mask was originally stolen and should be repatriated. They’ve requested the court to postpone its decision while their complaint is under consideration.

In 2020, the French parliament voted to return valuable artifacts looted during colonial times to Senegal and Benin. France currently holds around 90,000 African artifacts, the majority of which originate from sub-Saharan Africa.

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