A French couple who had retired sold an African mask to a dealer of used goods for €150 (£130). They have taken legal action in order to receive a portion of the profits after the mask was auctioned off for €4.2m (£3.7m).
However, activists argue that the valuable item should be repatriated to Gabon, sparking a debate about the preservation of Africa’s cultural legacy, which was plundered by colonial France.
The couple, aged 88 and 81, residing in Eure-et-Loir, a region south-west of Paris, made the decision to sell their vacation property in Gard, located in southern France. However, they had to first remove various small items from the attic before doing so. They reached out to a dealer of used goods who purchased multiple items, including a carved wooden mask that had been stored away in the loft. The mask had once belonged to the man’s grandfather, who served as a colonial governor in Africa.
After half a year, the couple was surprised to learn through a newspaper article that a rare and valuable mask from the 19th century, created by the Fang people of Gabon, was being auctioned in Montpellier. When they saw a picture of the mask, they realized it was the same one they owned. The mask’s unique design was said to have influenced artists Pablo Picasso and Amedeo Modigliani, and there were reportedly only a few others like it in existence.
The auction catalogue explained how the mask had been obtained by the man’s relative, “collected around 1917, in unknown circumstances by the French colonial governor René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier (1873-1931), probably during a tour in Gabon”.
Art experts were excited about the sale, as one auction house representative stated on French TV that the mask was even more rare than a Leonardo da Vinci painting. They noted that while there are 22 known paintings by the master, there are only 10 to 12 masks created by various Fang masters in Gabon.
In March 2022, the mask was put up for auction with an initial valuation of approximately €300,000. However, it ended up being sold for €4.2m to an anonymous buyer who placed their bid over the phone.
Residents of the Gabonese community in southern France participated in the auction as a form of protest, arguing that the mask should never have been made available for purchase and should instead be repatriated to Gabon.
The case of the retired couple was brought before a court in Alès on Tuesday. Their attorneys argued that they deserved to receive the profits from the auction since they had sold the mask to a bric-a-brac dealer for a significantly low price of €150. According to their lawyer, Frédéric Mansat Jaffré, his clients were acting in good faith and honesty and would not have agreed to such a low price if they had known the true value of the mask, which is considered extremely rare. This statement was reported by French media earlier this month.
On Tuesday, Solange Bizeau, a member of the Collectif Gabon Occitanie, appeared in court after participating in a protest at an auction alongside other members of the Gabon community.
According to her, the mask was stolen during the time of colonization. Many works of art, including those displayed in museums, were taken and the creators were deemed to be practicing witchcraft and were urged to follow the Bible instead. These artifacts have since ended up in Europe, providing profits for those who have possessed them for many years.
Today’s court hearing involves a dispute between the grandchildren of the governor and a secondhand dealer over a mask. However, neither party has a legitimate claim to the mask. Our goal is to have the mask returned to Gabon. This mask holds significance as it was used for justice in our villages. The court proceedings have centered around morality, but what about the morality of taking away our artistic works and dignity? Where is the morality in that?
In December, a court ruling is anticipated regarding whether the couple will receive the profits.
After winning the 2017 election, French President Emmanuel Macron urged for the return of artworks from French museums, stating that it was unacceptable for a significant portion of Africa’s cultural heritage to be held in France.