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Couple Sue Dealer Over Sale Of Rare 19th Century African Mask For $ 4.4 Million

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In court, a French second-hand salesman was charged with tricking a couple by paying €150 ($159) for an African mask that he later sold for €4.2 million ($44.5 million).

The Gabonese mask was discovered by the retired couple at the residence of an ancestor who had served as a colonial governor. After an auction six months later, they learned its full value, but they had sold it to the dealer in 2021.

The government of Gabon requested that the case be put on hold and that the mask be given back when it was first filed on Tuesday.

The story started when the couple, who are in their 80s and reside in central France, requested that the dealer clean their vacation property close to the town of Alès in the south. The colonial administrator in the early 20th Century René-Victor Fournier previously owned the home.

The wooden mask was discovered within a cabinet. The dealer contends that when he purchased it, he was unaware of its value. After learning about the auction in Montpelier in March 2022, the pair learned that the item was a unique “Ngi” mask from the 19th century, created by the Fang people of Gabon.

According to the auction listing, Fournier acquired it “in unknown circumstances” sometime about 1917.  At the time, an expert estimated that just ten or so of these artefacts had ever been created by Fang masters. He told French reporters, “This mask is rarer than a Leonardo da Vinci painting.”

The mask was purchased for €4.2 million by an anonymous bidder, although the auctioneers had originally priced it at €300,000 ($3,17,904).

In order to reverse the sale, the couple subsequently filed a civil lawsuit.

According to the Gabonese administration, the mask should be sent back home because it was originally stolen. It has requested that the court postpone making a decision until after it has resolved its own complaint.

The French parliament decided in 2020 to return priceless items that were looted during colonial times to Senegal and Benin.

About 90,000 African antiquities are in France, the majority of which come from sub-Saharan Africa.

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