An Elderly Couple Sold An Antique Dealer An African Mask For $158. Now, They’re Suing Him After He Resold It For Millions

Published October 10, 2023

The traditional Fang mask from Gabon is one of only a few such artifacts in existence — but the couple had no idea how valuable it was until they read about the $4.4 million sale in the newspaper.

Ngil Mask

Pascal Guyot/AFP via Getty ImagesThe 19th-century mask was used by the Ngil secret society in Gabon for purifying rituals.

An elderly couple in France is suing an antique dealer after he bought an African mask from them for $158 — and then turned around and sold it for $4.4 million. The unidentified couple, an 81-year old woman and her 88-year-old husband, allege the antique dealer cheated them by not telling them the mask was valuable.

The couple first found the mask while cleaning out their home in September 2021. While most of the items they wanted to get rid of went to a garage sale, they decided to sell the mask to a local antique dealer.

Initially, they believed the mask was “worthless.” So they agreed to sell it for the price of £150, or roughly $158.

But the dealer never displayed the mask in his shop. Instead, he immediately sought appraisals from multiple auction houses in France. The first two estimated it to be worth under €600 — but the third institution, which specializes in African artifacts, determined that it could be worth significantly more, according to Business Insider.

Radiocarbon dating revealed the artifact to be a rare 19th-century mask used in rituals by the Ngil, an African secret society and part of the Fang people in Gabon. According to court records, “only a dozen or so other specimens are known to exist worldwide, in Western museums and collections.”

The masks are incredibly rare. The Gourmet Gazette reports that French colonizers in Africa banned the judicial activities of secret societies in 1910, and traditional rituals of the Ngil society were discontinued in 1920.

As it turns out, the mask had been brought back from Gabon in the early 20th century by the husband’s grandfather, who according to Art Net was a colonial governor in Africa.

The mask ended up selling for $4.4 million at a specialized auction in Montpellier in March 2022. The couple only learned how valuable the mask was when they read about the sale in the newspaper.

They then sued the dealer, believing he had intentionally misled them about the potential value of the mask.

“Only a person with a perfect knowledge of the art market is capable of mounting a sale through an auction house, after having requested a carbon-14 expertise and enlisted the help of an expert in African masks,” the lawsuit said.

Bolstering their accusations is the allegation that, before he ever even consulted the auction houses, the dealer approached the couple’s gardener to get more information about the family’s ancestry in an attempt to determine the mask’s authenticity. According to the lawsuit, the dealer split his profits from the sale with the gardener.

The dealer’s defense argued that he “is a second-hand dealer and not an antique dealer and cannot be considered an valuation professional. He has no knowledge of African art.”

The dealer also claims he only submitted the mask for radiocarbon dating and other expert assessments at the request of the auction house, not because he himself thought it was valuable.

Initially, the dealer attempted to settle the lawsuit out of court, offering to pay the couple $315,000. But the couple’s children opposed this offer, and the lawsuit continued.

According to Business Insider, a lower court in France initially sided with the dealer and ordered the couple to pay roughly $3,200 in fees.

But the couple appealed, and the appeals court stated the case “appears to be well-founded in principle,” allowing the lawsuit to proceed. The appeals court also seized the proceeds from the sale, roughly $3.3 million after taxes. The lawsuit is still ongoing.

This isn’t the only controversy surrounding the mask. At the time of its sale, Gabonese protestors called for the piece’s restitution, calling the mask a “colonial ill-gotten gain” stolen by French colonizers from the Fang people.

“It’s a case of receiving stolen goods,” one protestor said, according to News 18. “We’ll file a complaint. Our ancestors, my ancestors, from the Fang community, we will recover this object.”

After reading about the lawsuit over the rare African mask, read about the theater tickets from the night of Lincoln’s assassination that sold at auction for over $260,000. Or, read about the 1,800-year-old ritual mask found in Japan.

Hannah Reilly Holtz
Hannah Reilly is an editorial fellow with All That's Interesting. She holds a B.A. in journalism from Texas Tech University and was named a Texas Press Association Scholar. Previously, she has worked for KCBD NewsChannel 11 and at Texas Tech University as a multimedia specialist.
Maggie Donahue
Maggie Donahue is an assistant editor at All That's Interesting. She has a Master's degree in journalism from Columbia University and a Bachelor's degree in creative writing and film studies from Johns Hopkins University. Before landing at ATI, she covered arts and culture at The A.V. Club and Colorado Public Radio and also wrote for Longreads. She is interested in stories about scientific discoveries, pop culture, the weird corners of history, unexplained phenomena, nature, and the outdoors.
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Holtz, Hannah. "An Elderly Couple Sold An Antique Dealer An African Mask For $158. Now, They’re Suing Him After He Resold It For Millions.", October 10, 2023, Accessed May 21, 2024.