Elderly French couple lose rare African mask case worth millions

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The Ngil mask, made by the Fang people of Gabon, is believed to be one of only about 10 in the world
By Ido Vock
BBC News

A second-hand dealer has won a case to keep the €4.2m (£4.6m; $3.6m) proceeds from the sale of a rare African mask he found in an elderly French couple’s attic.

He had been brought in to help clear the attic of the couple, who sold him the mask for €150 (£129; $165).

The couple sued, arguing that they had been misled about the item’s value.

But the judge disagreed, saying they had failed to appreciate the artwork’s true worth.

The rare Ngil mask, made by the Fang people of Gabon, is believed to be one of only around 10 in the world.

It would have been worn by members of the Ngil secret society. Historians believe members travelled through villages searching for troublemakers, including suspected sorcerers.

The 19th Century wooden mask was likely acquired “in unknown circumstance” around 1917 by René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier, a French colonial governor and the plaintiff’s grandfather.

It was held in the family’s possession until it was sold to the dealer.

The couple had gone to court to claim a share of the proceeds of the sale, alleging the dealer had misled them about the true value of the mask.

The dealer denied knowing that it was so valuable and said he had demonstrated goodwill by offering the couple €300,000, the mask’s initial valuation.

The judge ruled in favour of the dealer, and said the couple had failed to exercise due diligence in evaluating the “historical and artistic” value of the mask.

It is unclear whether the dealer’s initial offer still stands.

Gabon had also requested that the sale of the mask be halted on the grounds that it rightfully belonged to the country. But the court also rejected that argument.

Gabon was a French colony at the time Fournier acquired the mask.

Tens of thousands of works of African art are held outside the continent. Most were removed during the colonial era, sometimes under disputed circumstances.

French President Emmanuel Macron has previously called for the restitution 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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