Elderly couple lose French court battle over $4.6 million African mask

This photograph taken on March 24, 2022 shows a "Ngil" mask of the Fang people of Gabon which is estimated at 300,000/400,000 euros and which will be auctioned on March 26, 2022 at the Montpellier auction house. (Photo by Pascal GUYOT / AFP) (Photo by PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images)

The Ngil mask dates from the 19th century.Pascal Guyot/AFP/Getty ImagesCNN — 

A French court has rejected an appeal by an elderly couple who were paid €150 ($165) for a rare Gabonese mask that later sold for more than €4 million ($4.4 million) at auction.

The couple claimed that the art dealer who bought the mask from them failed “in his obligation to provide pre-contractual information” and committed “a breach of consent.”

They sought to annul the sale of the mask and asked for the auction’s proceeds to be given to them, but a court in Alès, southern France, upheld the terms of the sale in a decision passed down on Tuesday.

In its judgment, the court said the couple had kept the mask in an attic and had not hired any experts in order to ascertain “the true historic and artistic value” of the mask before agreeing a price with the dealer.

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The art dealer had no specific knowledge of African art nor any prior knowledge of the “singular value” of the mask, said the court, citing the fact that he had it valued by various auction houses, eventually receiving a valuation of €300,000-400,000.

The court criticized the owners for “their carelessness and casualness,” saying they had been in a hurry to sell the property in which the mask was kept, and had not paid any attention to the items inside.

The 88-year-old and his 81-year-old wife, identified by their initials in court documents but previously confirmed to CNN as Mr. and Mrs. Fournier by their lawyer, listed for sale an ancient African mask, which had been inherited from Mr. Fournier’s grandfather.

The grandfather, René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier, had served as a colonial governor in Central Africa during the early 20th century, when significant parts of the continent were under French colonial rule.

In September 2021, the Fourniers sold their mask to a second-hand dealer for €150, court documents show. According to their lawyer, Frédéric Mansat Jaffré, the couple were unaware of the mask’s market value and believed the dealer was offering a fair price.

A few months later, their lawyer said, they learned through a newspaper article that their old mask was being auctioned off, and that it was worth substantially more than the dealer had paid.

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Two days after this discovery, the mask sold for €4.2 million, a sale receipt shared with CNN showed, equivalent to $4.6 million.

The Fourniers launched a civil case against the dealer, which they lost in the fall of 2022 and were ordered to pay court costs.

On Tuesday, the court also ordered them to pay costs related to their failed appeal.

In addition, the court rejected a request from the Gabonese government to suspend proceedings.

Gabon has filed a separate lawsuit for the handling of stolen goods, accusing Mr. Fournier’s ancestor of having stolen the mask and therefore never being its rightful owner, Olivia Betoe Bi Evie, one of the lawyers representing Gabon, told CNN in November.

If the court had accepted its petition to suspend the legal proceedings on the sale of the mask, Gabon would have been able to pursue its separate case for the handling of stolen goods and fight for the mask to be returned to its country of origin.

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The mask is an extremely rare artifact of great spiritual value to the Gabonese people, Betoe Bi Evie told CNN.

Dating from the 19th century, it belonged to the powerful Ngil society, a secret group tasked with administering justice within the Fang communities of Gabon, according to Betoe Bi Evie.

“For Westerners, the mask is an art object,” Betoe Bi Evie said, “but for Africans, for the Gabonese… it’s a ritual object used to ensure peace in society. It’s very important.”

According to a Sotheby’s listing for a similar Ngil mask, these artifacts https://menghadapimu.com “are among the rarest and most highly celebrated of all African artworks,” making them “keenly sought after as indispensable keystones of the best collections of African art.”

The auction catalog for the mask said it had been “collected around 1917, under unknown circumstances, by the French colonial governor René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier (1873-1931), probably during a tour of Gabon,” according to CNN affiliate BFMTV.

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