When an elderly couple organizes a garage sale after selling their second home in the south of France, little do they know they will be embroiled in a legal battle with millions of euros at stake.
The 88-year-old man and his 81-year-old wife, identified by initials in court documents but confirmed to CNN as Mr. and Mrs. Fournier by their lawyer, are listing for sale an ancient African mask inherited from the man’s grandfather.
The grandfather – René-Victor Edouard Maurice Fournier, served as a governor in Central Africa at the beginning of the 20th century, when significant parts of the continent were under French colonial rule.
The Fourniers sold the mask in September 2021 to an antique dealer for 150 euros, court documents show. According to their lawyer Frédéric Mansat Jaffre, the two do not know the market value of the mask and believe the dealer is offering a fair price.
A few months later, they learn from a newspaper article that the mask is being auctioned and is worth significantly more than what the dealer is paying them. Two days later it was bought for 4.2 million euros.
The Fourniers filed a civil suit against the retailer, which they lost in the fall of 2022 and were ordered to pay legal costs. They are now appealing the court decision, claiming that the trader failed to fulfill its “obligation to provide pre-contractual information”.
The couple wants to cancel the sale of the mask and have the proceeds from the auction go to them.
An extremely rare artifact
As the appeal began Tuesday in a court in southern France, Gabon’s government stepped in and formally requested a stay of proceedings.
According to court documents, the dealer’s defense argued that he did not know the value of the mask when he bought it from the couple and only discovered it after going to the auction house to have it appraised.
His lawyers argued that the sellers had no grounds to claim error because they themselves offered the item for sale at a price of €150.
The state of Gabon is filing a separate lawsuit, accusing Fournier’s predecessor of stealing the Ngil mask and therefore never being its rightful owner, Olivia Beto Bévi, one of the lawyers representing the country, told CNN.
If the court accepts the petition to halt the ongoing legal proceedings over the sale of the mask, Gabon will be able to file a separate case for handling stolen goods and fight to have the mask returned to its country of origin.
The court is expected to issue a decision on December 19.
The mask is an extremely rare artefact of great spiritual value to the people of Gabon, says Beto Bi Evi.
Dating back to the 19th century, she belonged to the powerful Ngil Society, a secret group tasked with dispensing justice in Gabon’s Fang communities.
“For Westerners, the mask is an object of art,” says Beto Bi Evi, “but for Africans, for Gabonese people… it is a ritual object used to ensure peace in society. It’s very important.”
According to Sotheby’s, these artifacts “are among the rarest and most famous of all African works of art,” making them “highly sought after as indispensable cornerstones of the finest African art collections.”
The auction description of the mask says it was “collected around 1917 under unknown circumstances by French colonial governor René-Victor Edouard Maurice Fournier, possibly during a tour of Gabon.”
A tense legal battle
The couple’s lawyer argued in court that the antiquarian deliberately withheld from them information about the mask’s provenance and planned to split the money with their gardener, who provided him with details of Fournier’s connections to the former colonial governor.
It is through this information that the merchant manages to discover the origin of the mask, says lawyer Mansat Jaffre. The two allegedly visited the auction house together, posing as co-owners of the mask, according to court documents.
The couple say the dealer did not inform them of his relationship with their gardener, nor that he intended to auction off their mask. “
After the Fourniers discovered the mask was for sale, they contacted the dealer, who offered them 300,000 euros in compensation, equivalent to the auction house’s estimate of the mask’s value, says Mansat Jaffre.
The couple’s children advised their parents to refuse the amount and file a lawsuit. For now, the 3.2 million euros that the dealer earned from the sale of the mask after tax deductions and commissions have been frozen in his bank account by the court.
The trial attracted the attention of France’s large African diaspora and Gabon protesters came to court demanding the mask be returned to their country.
They were also present at the auction house when the mask was sold in March 2022, according to Solange Bizo, president of Collectif Gabon Occitanie, the organization behind the protests.
She told CNN she was “shocked” to see how little respect for her culture was shown in the courtroom.
“The two lawyers told the court that we, the people of Gabon, have no legal claim to the mask,” says Bizu. “I was shocked to see that those involved in the process didn’t care about the mask, they didn’t care about what it meant to us. All they wanted was money.”
Today, only a dozen Ngil masks remain in the world, according to court documents. Many of them are in the hands of private collectors. The identity of the buyer of the mask remains unknown at this time.
Calls for restitution
French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly called for the return of colonial artefacts from French collections to their original owners.
After his election in 2017, he expressed his desire “to have conditions in place within five years for the temporary or permanent return of African heritage to Africa”.
According to a report presented to Macron in 2018, there are at least 80,000 objects from sub-Saharan Africa in French public collections. So far, only a handful of them have been returned to their countries of origin.
Some of them for an indefinite period – such as the treasure of Behanzin, returned to Benin in 2020, and others through long-term loans, such as the sword and scabbard of West African leader Omar Tal, which are currently on display in a museum in Senegal.
In addition to Benin and Senegal, five other African countries – Chad, Madagascar, Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Mali – have made formal requests for restitution from the French government.
However, since the Ngil mask at the center of the current trial is not in a public collection, Gabon cannot claim its return from France.
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