French Couple Lose Court Case Over Rare African Mask Worth $4.6 Million

The dealer denied knowing that it was so valuable

A second-hand dealer has successfully retained the $4.6m proceeds from selling a rare African mask discovered in the attic of an elderly French couple. The dealer was enlisted to assist in clearing the couple’s attic, and they sold him the mask for $165. Despite the couple’s lawsuit, claiming they were misled about the item’s value, the judge ruled in favour of the dealer, stating that the couple had failed to recognize the true worth of the artwork, BBC reported. 

The rare Ngil mask, crafted by the Fang people of Gabon, is thought to be one of approximately 10 in existence. This mask was likely worn by members of the Ngil secret society, who, in the 19th Century, traversed villages seeking individuals deemed troublemakers, including suspected sorcerers.

Around 1917, Rene Victor Edward Maurice Fournier, a French colonial governor and the plaintiff’s grandfather, seemingly acquired the wooden mask under unspecified circumstances. It remained in the family’s possession until its sale to the dealer, who subsequently resold it at auction to an unidentified buyer.

The couple took legal action, aiming to claim a portion of the sale proceeds, asserting that the dealer had provided misleading information about the mask’s true value.

The dealer denied knowing that it was so valuable and said he had demonstrated goodwill by offering the couple $329,583, the mask’s initial valuation, the BBC reported. 

According to his attorney, the couple neglected to investigate the authentic value of the item before parting with it. Patricia Pijot, speaking to the French media, remarked, “When you have such an item at home, you should display a bit more curiosity before letting it go.”

The judge sided with the dealer, stating that the couple had not exercised due diligence in assessing the “historical and artistic” significance of the mask.

Following the couple’s legal action, the offer was withdrawn.

Frederic Mansat Jaffre, lawyer for the couple, said: “The judge has created a precedent… You or I will now need to ask a professional before then going to see another professional.”

Gabon had independently sought to block the sale of the mask, contending that it rightfully belonged to the country. However, the court dismissed this claim as well.

During the period when Fournier obtained the mask, Gabon was a French colony. Numerous African artworks, numbering in the tens of thousands, are currently located outside the continent. Many of these pieces were taken during the colonial era, often amid contentious circumstances.

French President Emmanuel Macron has previously advocated for the return of African art.

“I cannot accept that a large part of the cultural heritage of several African countries is in France,” he said in 2017.


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