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French couple sue dealer over €150 tribal mask that he sold for €4m

The Gabon mask came to light when the couple, in their 80s, were clearing out a family home

The mask sold is similar to this Fang tribe mask, but has a raffia beard; there are now calls for the mask to be returned to Gabon Pic: Martin Leber / Naruedom Yaempongsa / Shutterstock

An antiques dealer who paid an elderly couple €150 for a wooden African mask that he later sold for €4.2million has had his bank account frozen while a judge decides if the original sale should be annulled.

The couple brought the case before the court in Alès (Gard) on October 31, which is expected to reach a decision on December 19.

The mask came to light when a couple, in their 80s, were clearing out a family second home. 

One of their grandparents, who died in 1936, had been a governor of Gabon in Africa during the colonial period and had bought the mask in the early 1900s. 

It was made by a member of the Fang tribe. Similar masks were an inspiration to Picasso.

‘Contract only valid if two parties are honest about the value’

The couple’s lawyer Frédéric Mansat-Jaffre told The Connexion: “They knew nothing about art and the value of African artefacts.

“We are basing our claim for the annulment of the sale on the French contract law principle, whereby contracts are only valid if the two parties are honest about the value of the contract when it is signed.”

Read more: ‘Brocantes’ and antique markets - a lucky dip of France's rich history

Couple saw the mask in Le Figaro 

Before the auction, the dealer got back in touch and asked the couple to provide documentation about the mask in their grandparent’s papers.

He also arranged for it to be carbon-dated, at a cost of €600, so buyers could be sure it is not a modern copy.

“It was only by chance that the sellers later saw an advert in Le Figaro about an auction in Montpellier, which included the mask, with an estimate of between €300,000 and €400,000,” Mr Mansat-Jaffre said. 

He said the couple contacted the dealer after the sale and he said he might give them a share, but they did not hear from him again.

Dealers bank account frozen until judgment

Mr Mansat-Jaffre successfully applied for a €3million block to be put on the dealer’s bank account while the court considers its judgement.

“He has apparently spent a lot because there is only €1million left in the account,” he said. 

“If we get a settlement in our favour of €1million or less, the block will mean there are funds available to pay it. If it is above that, we will have access to the blocked account and also be able to make up the rest by seizing property.”

The dealer argued in court that he had no idea of the true value when he bought the mask and only afterwards realised it might be valuable. He therefore claims the original sale is valid.

Read more: Rare painting of Flemish master stumbled upon abandoned in French home

Legal precedents exist

Mr Mansat-Jaffre said the court would be guided by precedents, inclu­ding a case concerning a painting by French 17th century master Pous­sin. 

The picture was sold for a small sum after an auction house expert said it was just a copy of Poussin’s style. 

It was sold labelled as such, only to be acquired by the Louvre using its pre-emptive rights as a state museum. It put the painting on display as a Poussin. 

After a long court case, the original owners had the first sale annulled.

In the current case, the dealer cited another sale involving a painting by Fragonard, where it was sold “attributed to Fragonard” before being found definitively to be the artist’s work and resold for much more.

In that case, the judge ruled against the original sellers, because it was likely they knew the true value.

Mr Mansat-Jaffre said his clients genuinely did not know the value of the mask, or similar African artefacts, before the sale. 

The publicity around the mask’s high price has had another effect – a campaign has been started to have it returned to Gabon.

"This mask has a soul," said the association Gabon Occitanie, which alerted Gabon to the controversy.

"It is of cultural, rather than financial value. The people of Gabon have the right to see it come home."

Gabon brought the case to a Montpellier court in September.

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