A rare African mask is at the center of a multimillion-dollar legal battle; to understand

When an elderly couple held a garage sale after selling their second home in the south of France, they had no idea they would find themselves embroiled in a legal battle with millions of euros at stake.

The 88-year-old man and his 81-year-old wife, identified by their initials in court documents but confirmed to CNN like Mr. and Mrs. Fournier through their lawyer, offered for sale an ancient African mask, inherited from Mr. Fournier’s grandfather.

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

The Fourniers sold their mask in September 2021 to a second-hand dealer for 150 euros (around R$790), according to court documents. According to lawyer Frédéric Mansat Jaffré, the two men were unaware of the market value of the mask and believed that the reseller was offering a fair price.

A few months later, their lawyer claims to have learned from a newspaper article that their old mask was up for auction and that it was worth significantly more than the amount paid by the reseller.

Two days later, it was sold for 4.2 million euros (around 22.8 million reais), according to a sales receipt shared with the company. CNN.

The dealer’s defense, according to the documents, claims he was unaware of the mask’s value when he bought it from the couple and only found out about it when he went to the auction house to buy it. ‘assess.

Court documents show his lawyers argued that “the sellers have no reason to claim they made a mistake.” They themselves put the item on sale for 150 euros. They made an inaccurate economic assessment of the value presented by the mask.

The Fourniers initiated civil proceedings against the dealership, which they lost in the fall of 2022 and were ordered to pay legal costs.

They are now appealing the previous court ruling, claiming that the dealership failed “in its obligation to provide pre-contractual information” and committed “a breach of consent”.

The couple is seeking to cancel the sale of the mask and want the proceeds from the auction to be donated to them.

A CNN contacted the dealership’s attorney, but have not received a response so far.

Extremely rare artifact

When the appeal was initiated at the court in Alès, in the south of France, on Tuesday (31), the Gabonese government intervened and formally requested the suspension of the proceedings.

Gabon has opened another legal proceeding for receiving stolen goods, accusing Mr. Fournier’s ancestor of having stolen the Ngil mask and therefore never having been its rightful owner, he said. CNN Olivia Betoe Bi Evie, one of the lawyers representing Gabon.

If the court accepts the request to stay the ongoing legal proceedings regarding the sale of the Ngil mask, the country will be able to continue its trial for receiving stolen goods and fight to have the mask returned to its country of origin. The court is expected to deliver its decision on December 19.

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

Dating from the 19th century, it belonged to the powerful Ngil society, a secret group responsible for administering justice in Gabon’s Fang communities, according to Betoe Bi Evie.

“For Westerners, the mask is an object of art,” explains Betoe Bi Evie, “but for Africans, for the Gabonese, it is a ritual object used to ensure peace in society. Its very important”.

According to a Sotheby’s listing of a similar Ngil mask, these artifacts “are among the rarest and most famous works of African art”, making them “highly sought after as indispensable cornerstones of the finest collections of African art.”

The mask’s auction catalog stated that it had been “recovered around 1917, under unknown circumstances, by the French colonial governor René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier (1873-1931), probably during a trip to Gabon” , according to the mask affiliate. CNN BFMTV.

A tense legal battle

The couple’s lawyer argued in court that the dealer deliberately withheld information from them about the origin of the mask and planned to share the money with the gardener who worked for the couple and who had provided the dealer with information about the Fourniers’ links with the former governor. colonial.

It was thanks to this information that the dealer was able to deduce the origin of the mask, explained lawyer Mansat Jaffré. CNN.

The dealer and gardener allegedly went to the auction house together, presenting themselves as co-owners of the mask, the seniors claim in court documents.

The couple also claims that the dealer did not inform them of his relationship with the gardener, nor of his intention to sell the mask at auction, according to the lawyer.

“We think he (the dealer) already had an idea and knew that this mask was rare,” said Mansat Jaffré. CNN. “My clients are not art collectors, they are amateurs, they didn’t know it,” he added.

After discovering that the mask was being auctioned, the Fourniers contacted the merchant, who offered them 300,000 euros in compensation, the equivalent of the auction house’s estimate of the mask’s value, said Mansat Jaffré. .

The couple’s children advised their parents to refuse the amount and take legal action.

Currently, 3.2 million euros, the amount that the reseller earned from the sale of the mask after tax deductions and commissions, has been frozen in his bank account by the courts, said Mansat Jaffré.

The trial attracted the attention of a large French-African diaspora, and among those in court were several Gabonese protesters who demanded the mask be returned to their country.

Some were also present at the auction house during the sale of the mask in March 2022, according to Solange Bizeau, president of the Collectif Gabon Occitanie, the organization behind the protests.

She said CNN who was “shocked” at how little respect the court showed for her culture.

“Both lawyers told the court that we, the Gabonese people and the Gabonese state, have no legitimate right (to the mask),” Bizou said. “I was shocked to see that they (auction participants) were not interested in the mask, they didn’t care what it meant for us, all they wanted was to money.”

Today, there are only about a dozen Ngil masks left in the world, according to court documents. Many, according to Betoe Bi Evie, are in the hands of private collectors.

For the moment, the identity of the buyer of the mask remains unknown to everyone, with the exception of the reseller and the auction house, who have not disclosed it, said Mansat Jaffré. CNN.

Refunds requested

French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly called for the return of colonial objects from French collections to their original owners.

After his election in 2017, he expressed his wish that “the conditions would be met within five years for temporary or permanent restitution of African heritage to Africa”.

According to a report presented to Macron in 2018, French public collections include at least 80,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa. So far, only a few have been returned to their home countries.

Some objects have been returned for an indefinite period, such as the 26 looted royal objects that make up the Béhanzin Treasure, returned to Benin in 2020.

Others were repatriated to their birthplaces on long-term loans, such as the sword and scabbard of West African leader Omar Tall, currently on display at the Museum of Black Civilizations in Senegal.

In addition to Benin and Senegal, five other African countries – Chad, Madagascar, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Mali – have officially requested reimbursements from the French government.

However, because the Ngil mask at the center of the ongoing trial is not kept in a public collection, Gabon cannot demand its return to France.