Legal row over 2,800,000% mark-up for an African mask
In France, a court has brought a second-hand dealer to trial on charges of duping a senior couple who received a mere €150 (£130) for an African mask, which he subsequently resold for €4.2 million.
The elderly couple had stumbled upon the Gabonese mask while sorting through their vacation home near the southern town of Alès, which once belonged to an ancestor who served as a colonial governor in the early 20th century.
In 2021, they sold the mask to the dealer, only to discover its true worth six months later when it was auctioned. When the proceedings commenced on Tuesday, the government of Gabon requested that the case be stopped and the mask be returned.
The story originated when the octogenarian couple, residing in central France, enlisted the dealer to clear their holiday property. The mask, a wooden artifact, was discovered in a closet. The dealer asserts that he was unaware of its significant value when he purchased it.
In March 2022, the couple stumbled upon an auction in the city of Montpellier, where they learned that the mask was a rare 19th-century “Ngi” mask crafted by the Fang people of Gabon. The auction catalogue mentioned that it had been obtained by Fournier in “unknown circumstances” around 1917.
One expert stated that only about ten such masks had ever been created by Fang artisans. He remarked to the French media, “This mask is rarer than a Leonardo da Vinci painting.” Initially valued at €300,000 by the auctioneers, the mask ultimately fetched €4.2 million from an undisclosed buyer.
Consequently, the couple initiated a civil lawsuit seeking to annul the sale.
The Gabonese government has argued that the mask was stolen in the first place and should be returned home. It has asked for the court to delay its ruling pending a decision on its complaint.
In 2020, the French parliament voted to return to Senegal and Benin prized artifacts that were looted during colonial times.
There are some 90,000 African artifacts in France, most from sub-Saharan Africa.