An antique dealer appeared in court in Alès for allegedly defrauding a retiree couple by paying £130 for an African mask and then selling it for £3.6 million.
The couple from Nimes, France, aged 81 and 88, chose to sell the ‘Ngil’ mask in 2021.
The husband’s grandfather, a colonial ruler in Africa, brought the mask to France.
They requested a dealer known as Mr Z to clear their vacation home in September of that year. They then sold him the mask for £130.
Mr. Z then sold it for £3.6 million at an auction in Montpellier a few months later. The antiquities merchant stated he had no idea how precious the mask was when he bought it.
Following the commencement of the lawsuit today in Alès, the Gabonese government has requested that the judicial procedures be halted, amid requests for a criminal inquiry.
According to the BBC, the administration has stated that the mask was stolen and that it should be returned to the country.
The French couple had no idea the item was worth so much until they read about it in the papers. They subsequently filed a civil suit to cancel the sale.
It is a traditional Gabonese Fang mask, which is utilized in rituals such as weddings and funerals.
René-Victor Fournier, a colonial official in the early 1900s, used to own the retiree couple’s vacation home. The mask was discovered ‘under mysterious circumstances,’ according to the catalogue that advertised it.
An expert told French media that the mask was ‘rarer than a Leonardo da Vinci painting,’ and that Fang masters created just about 10 masks of such type.
It is estimated that there are approximately 900,000 African antiques in France, many of which are from Sub-Saharan Africa, and the French government voted three years ago in 2020 to return artefacts from Senegal and Benin.
According to The Guardian, Gabonese community members who attended the auction suggested the mask should be restored to the country.
‘Today’s court case is between the governor’s grandchildren versus a secondhand trader,’ said Solange Bizeau of the Collectif Gabon Occitanie, who protested at the auction and was also present at the court proceedings today.
‘However, in terms of this masquerade, neither of them is authentic. What we seek is the return of the mask to Gabon. This mask has a soul since it was utilized to bring justice to our villages.’
The couple’s decision on whether to keep the money is expected in December.