An elderly couple are suing an art dealer who bought an African face mask from them for £129 and sold it for £3.6million.
The unnamed pair, aged 81 and 88, from Nimes in France, were clearing out their home in 2021 and decided to sell the ‘Ngil’ mask.
In September of that year, they flogged it to a dealer, known as Mr Z.
After paying just a small price for it, he sold it at an auction in Montpellier a few months later for an impressive £3.6million.
The artwork is a traditional Fang mask from Gabon, used in rituals such as weddings and funerals.
After buying the mask from the elderly couple for a small price, Mr Z sold it at an auction in Montpellier for millions
Fang masks, highly stylised and carved from wood, are made by the Fang people who occupy regions in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon
The mask is a rare sight outside the central African country, with fewer than a dozen carried in museums around the world.
The mask was brought to France by the husband’s grandfather, who was a colonial governor in Africa, according to ARTnews.
The French couple did not know of the colossal value of the item until they read about the sale in a newspaper.
They are now suing Mr Z because they believe that he cheated them.
The lawsuit is ongoing but, as of June 28, the court of appeals in Nimes ruled that the couple’s case ‘appears to be well-founded in principle’.
It ordered the proceeds of the sale to be frozen until the end of the case, ARTnews reported.
The couple have argued that the dealer withheld his suspicions over the value of the artifact.
Instead of displaying the mask in his shop, he got in touch with three auction houses in France for an estimate of its worth.
The last of these was an African artifacts specialist, who had the mask professionally analysed.
Auctioneer Jean-Christophe Giuseppi poses next to a ‘Ngil’ mask of the Fang people of Gabon
The mask was listed for sale by the auction with an estimate of between £259,416 and £345,888 but it sold in March last year for considerably more.
The dealer first offered the couple £259,416 when faced with legal action, but the offer was rejected due to it being opposed by their children, according to court documents reviewed by Artnet News.
Fang masks are highly stylised and carved from wood. They are made by the Fang people who occupy regions in Cameroon, Equatorial Guinea and Gabon.
The one sold at the auction features decorative elements on the lower half that resemble a long beard.
Tests dated the mask to the 19th century and an ethnologist expert said it was used by the Ngil, a secret male society that formed part of the Fang people, who oversaw judicial matters.
Court documents seen by Artnet News read: ‘This piece of kaolin-coated cheesewood is therefore exceptional in terms of its rarity, as only a dozen or so other reference specimens are known to exist worldwide, in Western museums and collection.’
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