Elderly Couple 'Cheated' On Rare Fang Mask, Resold for $4.4 Million
Much of the erstwhile colonized world is still in legal and ethical tussles with their former colonizers, in an effort to retrieve precious artifacts and treasures that belong to their people. France, a former colonial power that had spread its imperial empire from the Americas to Asia, was in the news for the wrong reasons – a rare Ngil mask, used in ceremonies by the Fang ethnic people of Gabon, was sold by an elderly couple for a paltry $158 to an art dealer, who resold the same mask for a whopping $4.4 million dollars!
Striking a Deal: The Fang Mask of the Gabonese
The unnamed pair, 88 and 81 years old, from Nimes, France allegedly made the deal with an art dealer called ‘Mr. Z’ in September 2021, as they were clearing out their house. Mr. Z sold the same piece to an auction house in Montpellier a few months later, with the traditional Fang mask being used in rituals such as weddings and funerals, reports Radio France International.
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During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, France established a vast colonial empire in Africa, encompassing territories in North, West, Central, and East Africa. This colonization was driven by economic, political, and strategic interests, with France exploiting African resources such as rubber, timber, and minerals, along with precious artifacts and treasures.
The Fang people, residing in areas spanning Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon, create intricately stylized wooden masks known as Fang masks. These masks are typically carved from wood, often featuring distinctive, elongated faces, and striking geometric patterns.
They are used in various traditional ceremonies and rituals, often representing the embodiment of ancestral spirits or supernatural beings. These masks are believed to have the power to connect with the spirit world and ensure the protection and well-being of the community.
According to ARTnews, the mask was initially brought to France by the husband's grandfather, who served as a colonial governor in Africa. The mask, in itself, is an exceptionally rare find outside the central African country, with fewer than a dozen known to exist in museums worldwide.
Fang mask used for the ''Ngil'' ceremony, an inquisitorial search for sorcerers, 19th century, Gabon. (Public Domain)
Dealt the Wrong Hand: Court Proceedings
Remarkably, the French couple was unaware of the immense value of this item until they came across an article about its sale in a newspaper. Subsequently, they have initiated legal proceedings against Mr. Z, alleging that he deceived them. The couple contends that the dealer failed to disclose any suspicions about the artifact's value, and deliberately withheld information about its true value, knowledge which he seemed to possess.
Gabonese protesters protested the "totally legal" sale of this "Ngil" mask of the Fang people at the Hôtel des Ventes de Montpellier in 2022. The lawsuit filers are the descendants of French colonial governor René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier so I'm not crying over *their* loss pic.twitter.com/AHcSkNxr3B
— Lynda Albertson (@sauterne) October 4, 2023
Instead of putting the mask on display in his shop, he contacted three different auction houses in France to obtain estimates of its worth. First, he reached out to the auction houses Drouot Estimation and Fauve Paris for evaluations. Drouot Estimation estimated the mask's value to be approximately €100 to €120, while Fauve Paris suggested a higher range of €400 to €600.
The final evaluation was carried out by an African artifacts specialist who professionally analyzed the mask. Following the analysis conducted with carbon-14 dating and mass spectrometry, the mask was determined to date back to the 19th century. Furthermore, the expert ethnologist's appraisal indicated that the mask had been employed in purification rituals conducted by the Ngil society. The Ngil society was a secret organization that was active within the Fang ethnic group in Gabon until the 1920s.
While the lawsuit is ongoing, as of June 28, the court of appeals in Nimes has determined that the couple's case seems to have a solid foundation in principle. As a result, they have ordered the proceeds from the mask's sale to be frozen until the case reaches its conclusion, reports The Daily Mail.
“This piece of kaolin-coated cheesewood is therefore exceptional in terms of its rarity, as only a dozen or so other reference specimens are known to exist worldwide, in Western museums and collections,” according to court records reviewed by Artnet and translated from French.
“The respondent is a second-hand dealer who unequivocally offers an appraisal service on his website. Only a person with a perfect knowledge of the art market is capable of mounting a sale through an auction house, after having requested a carbon-14 expertise and enlisted the help of an expert in African masks,” claimed the couple in the same court documents.
The defense asserted that the dealer was a second-hand dealer, not an antique dealer, and could not be classified as a valuation professional. They claimed he lacked knowledge of African art. They also contended that he had sought the expert assessments because of the auctioneer's suggestion, without any indication that he believed the item held greater value.
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Le Monde newspaper has referenced other instances, such as cases involving owners of paintings by Nicolas Poussin. In these cases, the artworks had initially been wrongly attributed to a lesser-known painter before their true authenticity was established. As a result of these corrections, the original contracts were voided, and the owners received restitution, similar to the dynamic here.
Since the matter is still sub-judice, it remains to be seen what precedent the court sets or follows, which could be important for future matters of this nature.
Top image: Crafted by the Fang people in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea, and Gabon, Fang masks are intricate wooden creations known for their stylized designs. Source: Drouot Gazette
By Sahir Pandey
Callery, J. 2023. Elderly French couple sue art dealer who bought African face mask from them for £129 and sold it for £3.6m. Available at: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-12615059/Elderly-French-couple-sue-art-dealer-bought-African-face-mask-sold-3-million.html.
Rivas, R. 2023. Quand un particulier ignore posséder un trésor et le brade à un brocanteur pour 150 euros. Available at: https://www.lemonde.fr/argent/article/2023/10/02/masque-fang-quand-un-particulier-ignore-posseder-un-tresor-et-le-brade-a-un-brocanteur-pour-150-euros_6191935_1657007.html.
Schrader, A. 2023. An Elderly Couple Sold a ‘Worthless’ African Mask for $157. Now They Are Suing the Buyer Who Auctioned It for $4.4 Million. Available at: https://news.artnet.com/art-world/french-court-sides-with-couple-after-antiques-dealer-flips-fang-mask-2370870.
Solomon, T. 2023. An Elderly Couple Sold an African Mask to an Antiques Dealer for $157. It Sold at Auction for Millions. Now They Want Compensation. Available at: https://www.artnews.com/art-news/news/african-mask-antiques-dealer-auction-four-miilion-sale-1234681082/.