A second-hand dealer in France is embroiled in a legal battle for allegedly selling an African mask at an astronomical markup, deceiving a pensioner couple who originally owned it.
The 19th-Century “Ngi” mask, crafted by the Fang people of Gabon, was initially purchased from the couple for €150 (£130) and later resold for €4.2 million (£3.7 million). The mask, which had been gathering dust in the couple’s attic, was discovered when they decided to sell their home.
The rare artifact was part of a collection of items sold by the couple, including a wooden mask found within the house that had belonged to the man’s grandfather, René-Victor Fournier, a colonial administrator in Africa during the early 20th Century.
However, six months after the sale, the couple realized the mask’s true worth when they came across it in a newspaper and an auction catalogue. It was described as even rarer than a Leonardo da Vinci painting, with only a handful of such masks known to exist.
The couple said they had “almost fallen off their chairs” when they recognised the photo and the auction catalogue said it was collected around 1917, in unknown circumstances by Fournier.
The mask was eventually auctioned in March 2022, fetching £3.7 million after being initially valued at £2.6 million. Feeling deceived, the original owners filed a civil suit against the dealer, claiming they were unfairly compensated for the sale and demanding the annulment of the transaction.
Their lawyers argued that the couple should have received a fair share of the significant profits, as they would never have sold it for £130 had they known its true value.
In parallel to the legal dispute, representatives of the Gabon government maintained that the mask was stolen during colonization and should be returned to its country of origin.
Solange Bizeau of the Collectif Gabon Occitanie spoke on the broader issue of stolen cultural artifacts, stating, “All these works of art were taken, and the people who made them were told they were the devil’s work, and they should instead believe in the Bible. And from that point on, these artifacts have appeared in Europe, enriching people who have made money from them for decades.”
She emphasized the moral dilemma surrounding these artworks and questioned the morality of their spoliation.
A decision from the court regarding the mask’s ownership and the couple’s claim is expected in December.