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French couple file lawsuit against dealer who sold their €150 African mask for €4.3 million

A "Ngil" mask of the Fang people of Gabon
A "Ngil" mask of the Fang people of Gabon Copyright PASCAL GUYOT/AFP
Copyright PASCAL GUYOT/AFP
By Theo FarrantAFP
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The State of Gabon has joined the dispute, highlighting the broader issue of repatriating Africa's cultural heritage looted during colonial times.

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A French second-hand art dealer is being sued by a retired couple who allege they sold him a rare 19th-century African mask for just €150, only for him to resell it for a staggering €4.2 million.

Legal proceedings initiated by the French couple began on Tuesday (31 October). 

But a third party was invited, the State of Gabon, which intends to recover this treasure, marking the latest chapter in a growing conversation surrounding the restitution of Africa's cultural heritage, long displaced during the era of colonial France.

Where did the mask come from?

Auctioneer Jean-Christophe Giuseppi with a Fang people's "Ngil" mask from Gabon
Auctioneer Jean-Christophe Giuseppi with a Fang people's "Ngil" mask from GabonCredit: Pascal Guyot/AFP

The couple, an 88-year-old retired clerk and his wife, an 81-year-old stay-at-home mother, had called on a second-hand dealer to get rid of the old junk accumulated in their second home in Gard.

Among these apparently worthless objects: a carved wooden mask that belonged to an ancestor, a former colonial governor in Africa, which they were finally going to sell off for €150 euros, in September 2021, at the same time as spears, a circumcising knife, a bellows and musical instruments.

Several months later, they were stunned to learn from a newspaper article that their mask had fetched an impressive €4.2 million at an auction in Montpellier.

Gabonese community members residing in southern France attended the auction in protest, arguing that the mask should never have been offered for sale and insisting it should be repatriated to Gabon.

Unable to recover the object, the couple are now taking legal action to reclaim the amount of the mask's value at the end of its auction in Montpellier in March 2022.

Details of the case

The second-hand dealer had set the price "based on dedicated websites" and on opinions from auctioneers "who did not want the item", said Me Patricia Pijot, his lawyer, stressing that his client " is not a professional in valuation or African art.”

Also absent from the hearing, the art dealer denies any intention of fraud. As proof of his honesty, recalled his lawyer, he had even offered to pay the couple the value of €300,000 estimated by the auctioneers at the Montpellier auction house. 

The catalog of the auction room specified that the rare object had been "collected around 1917, in unknown circumstances, by the French colonial governor René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier (1873-1931), probably during a tour in Gabon".

The entry of the Gabonese State in the legal battle

France's President Emmanuel Macron (R) and President of Gabon Ali Bongo Ondimba wave to the press from the stairs of the Elysee Palace, in Paris on November 12, 2021.
France's President Emmanuel Macron (R) and President of Gabon Ali Bongo Ondimba wave to the press from the stairs of the Elysee Palace, in Paris on November 12, 2021.Credit: LUDOVIC MARIN/AFP

But it is therefore a third party who could ultimately recover the mask.

At the outset of the trial in Alès, two lawyers representing the transitional government of Gabon requested that their voluntary intervention be deemed admissible, in order to "achieve the successive cancellation of sales of this mask, its repatriation and the consignment of funds."

The Gabonese State is also calling for a "stay of proceedings" to simultaneously pursue a criminal case initiated in the Montpellier judicial court. 

After a first complaint for receiving stolen goods was made in March 2023 by the Gabon Occitanie collective, which wanted to alert the Gabonese authorities, the Gabonese state itself filed a complaint, still for receiving stolen goods, in September. 

It is in this context that a restitution of the mask is claimed.

The deliberation is set for 19 December.

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