Art in the Diaspora

Elderly Couple Sue Art Dealer over $4.4 Million African Mask Sale

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An elderly couple in France has accused an antiques dealer of cheating them out of a seven-figure payout after learning that the African mask they sold him made €4.2 million ($4.4 million) at auction.

Elderly couple in France accuses an antiques dealer of cheating them out of a seven-figure payout.
Image by wirestock on Freepik

After learning that the African mask they sold him brought in €4.2 million ($4.4 million) at auction, an elderly couple in France accused the antiques dealer of cheating them out of a seven-figure payout. The Times of India report that the unidentified 81-year-old and 88-year-old couple filed a lawsuit against the dealer and requested that a Nimes appeals court determine what money is owed to them in damages.

The pair was clearing out their home in preparation for a garage sale when they came across the mask. But the mask was saved for the neighborhood antiques dealer, who agreed to purchase it in September 2021 for €150 (roughly $157). A few months later, they discovered in the newspaper that the mask had been bought for millions at a Montpellier auction house. Apparently, the mask was a traditional Gabonese Fang mask that was used in weddings, funerals, and other rituals, according to the listing. The mask was brought to France by the husband’s grandfather, an African colonial governor, and is a rare sight outside of Gabon; fewer than a dozen copies are kept in museums worldwide.

A “Ngil” mask of the Fang people of Gabon which was auctioned on March 26, 2022 at the Montpellier auction house.
Image courtesy of Pascal Guuot/AFP Via Getty Images.

An appeals court in France decided on June 28 that their case against the dealer “appears to be well-founded in principle” after a series of legal moves and countermoves, and it has frozen the sale proceeds while the case is ongoing. Le Monde was the first to report the filing, which was made by the Nimes appeals court.

Their argument is based on the idea that the dealer concealed his concerns about the artifact’s actual value. Instead of putting the mask on display in his store, he contacted three French auction houses to get an idea of its market value. The final person he got in touch with was an expert in African artifacts who had the mask examined using mass spectrometry and carbon-14 dating. The tests established the mask’s historical provenance as the 19th century, and an ethnologist expert who examined it claimed it was worn by the Ngil, a clandestine male society among the Fang people that oversaw judicial affairs.

The auction house listed the mask for sale with an estimate of between €300,000 and €400,000; it sold in March 2022 for more than triple the high estimate.

Faced with potential legal proceedings, the antiquities dealer initially offered the couple €300,000 euros (about $315,000) in compensation, however court documents reviewed by Artnet News reveal that the offer was rejected due to opposition from the couple’s children. A judicial court in Alès granted them a protective seizure of the proceeds of the sale, which was carried out in May 2022. This move was reversed by a lower court, and the funds were returned to the dealer. 

The couple also claims that the antiques dealer conspired with their gardener, with whom he shared the sale’s proceeds, to find out the mask’s provenance information before approaching the auction houses, according to Artnet.

The defense argued that the dealer “is a second-hand dealer and not an antique dealer and cannot be considered an valuation professional. He has no knowledge of African art.” They added that he sought the expert assessments at the initiative of the auctioneer, not because he had reason to believe it held greater value.

The appeals court has once again ordered the seizure of the sale’s proceeds even though the case is still remains open.

Author

Bardi Osobuanomola Catherine is a budding storyteller. Her academic credentials include a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Benin. She has contributed to numerous Art publications across Africa. She is currently a Writer for Art News Africa.

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