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Antiques dealer in court after buying mask from couple for £130 then selling it for millions

Antiques dealer in court after buying mask from couple for £130 then selling it for millions

The rare 19th century Gabonese mask was bought in France for £130 before the antique dealer sold it for millions

A French antiques dealer has appeared in court accused of deceiving an elderly couple into selling him an African mask which he then went on to sell for millions.

However, there is another twist in the story, as the government of the nation from which it originally came has also become involved and asked for it to be returned, claiming it was stolen from them in the first place and belongs back with them.

The couple, both pensioners, found the mask in the cupboard of a house belonging to René-Victor Fournier, a relative who used to be a colonial governor in Gabon during the 20th century, and eventually sold it on to the antiques dealer – identified only as Mr Z – in 2021 for around £130.

The Ngil mask was made in Gabon by the Fang people.
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images

The couple, from the French city of Nimes, asked Mr Z to help them clear the holiday home and agreed to sell the mask for just €150.

However, the rare 19th century ‘Ngil’ mask made by the Fang people of Gabon, was worth much more than that, and a few months later Mr Z sold it for £3.6 million at an auction.

Mr Z claims that he did not know the value of the mask until after he had bought it from the couple.

However, in the auction catalogue, it was noted that the mask came to be in the possession of Fournier in 1917 ‘in unknown circumstances’.

An expert said at the time that there may have been as few as 10 items such as this one made by the Fang masters, claiming: “This mask is rarer than a Leonardo Da Vinci painting.”

After the mask was bought by an unnamed bidder for €4.2 million – from a valuation of €300,000 – the couple launched a civil case against Mr Z to get the sale annulled.

The Gabonese government claims that the mask was stolen in the first instance, and therefore should be returned to Gabon where it belongs.

The African country has asked for the decision of this first civil case to be delayed while a decision on its own complaint is considered.

France has previously returned precious artefacts that were stolen during colonial times to African nations Senegal and Benin, so there is a precedent for such items being returned.

Gabon also wants the extremely rare mask back.
PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images

France is currently home to around 90,000 African artefacts, most of which came from sub-Saharan Africa during colonial times.

Solange Bizeau, from a group called Collectif Gabon Occitanie, who protested the auction and have attended the court proceedings, said: “Today this court case is about the grandchildren of the governor versus a second-hand 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 on the couple’s claim is expected to be made in December.

Featured Image Credit: PASCAL GUYOT/AFP via Getty Images)

Topics: World News, Money, Crime, History