As French Couple Fights for African Mask Sold for Millions, Activists Demand its Repatriation 

Activists are calling for the repatriation of a rare mask from Gabon at the center of a closely watched court case in France.

Earlier this month, an elderly couple charged an antiquities dealer with dishonest business practices after the mask they sold him for €150 (about $157) made €4.2 million ($4.4 million) at auction. Le Monde reported at the time that the unnamed pensioners, who live in Eure-et-Loir, south of Paris, asked an appeals court in Nimes to determine what compensation is owed them. 

However, activists have demanded the artifact be instead returned to Gabon, a Central African country colonized by France between 1885 and 1960. During that period, occupying forces looted Gabon’s natural resources and cultural property, and today an unknown number of its artifacts are scattered across public and private collections worldwide.

The Gabon mask sold at auction was discovered while the pair cleaned out their property in preparation for a garage sale. The mask, however, was put aside for the local dealer, who acquired it 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 auction catalogue, it is a traditional Fang mask from Gabon used in weddings, funerals, and other rituals. Masks of this type are highly sought-after by collectors, with less than a dozen owned by cultural institutions outside Gabon. 

The listing detailed how the mask was “collected around 1917, in unknown circumstances by the French colonial governor René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier (1873-1931), probably during a tour in Gabon.”

In March 2022, the mask hit the block with a €300,000 high estimate, only to sell for €4.2 million to an anonymous collector bidding by telephone. Activists from the Gabon community in southern France attended the auction in protest, calling on the auction house to cancel the sale. 

Solange Bizeau, with the Collectif Gabon Occitanie, who had participated in the protest at the auction house was quoted by the Guardian as saying, “this court case is about the grandchildren of the governor versus a secondhand dealer. But neither of them is legitimate in terms of this mask. What we want is the restitution of this mask to Gabon.”

She added: “This mask has a soul, it was used to establish justice in our villages. The discussion in court has been about morality, but what about the morality of the spoliation of works of art and our dignity?”

A French court will hear the couple’s arguments this December.