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African Mask Sold for $158, Re-Sold for $4.4 Million in France, Gabon Seeks Repatriation

African Mask Sold for $158, Re-Sold for $4.4 Million in France, Gabon Seeks Repatriation 

By Adeke Chukwuka

In a recent development, an elderly couple in France filed a lawsuit against an antiques dealer, alleging that they were deceived out of a seven-figure payout. The couple claims that a Gabonese mask they sold to the dealer later fetched €4.2 million ($4.4 million) at auction.

The lawsuit, brought before an appeals court in Nimes, seeks compensation, with the court expected to determine the appropriate restitution for the aggrieved couple.

While cleaning their property for a garage sale, the elderly couple stumbled upon an African mask. In September 2021, they sold it to a local antiques dealer for $158. Later, they discovered the mask had been auctioned for millions in Montpellier.

Described as a traditional Fang mask from Gabon, used in weddings and rituals, the rare artifact was originally brought to France by the husband’s colonial governor grandfather, making it a unique and valuable piece.

In an ongoing lawsuit, the elderly couple has achieved a preliminary victory: the appeals court ruled on June 28 that their claim ‘appears to be well-founded in principle’ and ordered the auction sale proceeds to be frozen until the case concludes.

 Their argument revolves around the dealer’s alleged failure to disclose his suspicions about the artifact’s true value. Instead of showcasing the mask in his shop, he sought appraisals from three auction houses in France. 

The last one he approached, specializing in African artifacts, conducted carbon-14 dating and mass spectrometry analyses. The tests revealed the mask’s origins in the 19th century, and an ethnologist expert confirmed its use by the Ngil, a secret male society within the Fang people, overseeing judicial matters.

The mask, initially estimated to be worth between €300,000 and €400,000, was auctioned in March 2022 for more than triple the high estimate. Faced with potential legal action, the dealer offered the couple €300,000 ($315,000) in compensation, which was rejected due to opposition from their children.

A judicial court in Alès granted them a protective seizure of the sale proceeds in May 2022, but this decision was overturned by a lower court, leading to the funds being returned to the dealer. The case is currently under review by a higher court in Nimes.

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