An Elderly Couple Sold an African Mask to an Antiques Dealer for $157. It Sold at Auction for Millions. Now They Want Compensation 

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. According to Le Monde, which first reported the news, the unnamed couple has launched a lawsuit against the dealer, asking an appeals court in Nimes to determine what compensation is owed them. 

The mask was discovered while the pair cleaned out their property in preparation for a garage sale. The mask, however, was put aside for the local antiques dealer, who agreed to buy it for €150 (about $157) in September 2021. Months later they read in the newspaper that the mask had been sold for millions at an auction house in Montpellier. Per the listing, it was a traditional Fang mask from Gabon used in weddings, funerals, and other rituals. The mask—a rare sight outside of Gabon, with less than a dozen held in museums worldwide—was brought to France by the husband’s grandfather, who was a colonial governor in Africa. 

The lawsuit is ongoing, but they’ve won a small victory: the appeals court decided on June 28 that their claim “appears to be well-founded in principle” and ordered the proceeds of the auction sale be frozen until the conclusion of the case. Their argument is based on the belief that the dealer withheld his suspicions over the true value of the artifact. Rather than display the mask in his shop, he contacted three auction auction houses in France for an estimate of its monetary worth. The last he contacted was a specialist in African artifacts, which had the mask analyzed using carbon-14 dating and mass spectrometry. The tests dated the mask to the 19th century and an ethnologist expert, after having a look, said it was used by the Ngil, a secret male society within the Fang people who oversaw judicial matters. 

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 case is under review by a higher court in Nimes.