An antique dealer has appeared in court in Alès for allegedly deceiving a pensioner couple after he paid £130 for an African mask before selling it for £3.6million.
The couple, aged 81 and 88, from Nimes in France, decided to sell the ‘Ngil’ mask in 2021.
The mask was brought to France by the husband’s grandfather, who was a colonial governor in Africa.
In September of that year, they asked a dealer, known as Mr Z, to clear their holiday home. They then sold the mask to him for £130.
Mr. Z then sold it on at an auction in Montpellier a few months later for £3.6million. The antiques dealer claimed that he did not know how valuable the mask was when he purchased it.
Following the opening of the case today at a court in Alès, the Gabonese government has asked for the legal proceedings to come to a halt, amid calls for a criminal investigation to take place.
The government has said that the mask was stolen and it should therefore be returned to the country, according to the BBC.
The French couple did not know of the colossal value of the item until they read about the sale in a newspaper. They then brought forward a civil case to annul the sale.
It is a traditional Fang mask from Gabon, used in rituals such as weddings and funerals.
The pensioner couple’s holiday home used to belong to René-Victor Fournier, a colonial administrator in the early 1900s. The catalogue which advertised the mask said Fournier had come across the artwork ‘in unknown circumstances’.
An expert told French media that the mask was ‘rarer than a Leonardo da Vinci painting,’ and estimated that only around 10 masks of that kind had been made by Fang masters.
It is estimated that there are around 900,000 African artefacts in France – many of which are from sub-Saharan Africa and three years ago in 2020, the French government voted to return artefacts from Senegal and Benin.
According to The Guardian, members of the Gabon community attended the auction and said the mask should be returned back to the country.
Solange Bizeau, of the Collectif Gabon Occitanie, who protested at the auction and was also present at the court case today said: ‘Today this court case is about the grandchildren of the governor versus a secondhand dealer.
‘But neither of them is legitimate in terms of this mask. What we want is the restitution of this mask to Gabon. This mask has a soul, it was used to establish justice in our villages.’
A decision as to whether the pair will pocket the money is expected in December.Share this story to friends