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Rare African Mask at the Center of Fierce Multimillion-Dollar Legal Battle and Repatriation Efforts


A rare 19th-century Ngil mask from Gabon is at the center of a fierce multimillion-dollar lawsuit that involves an elderly French couple, a dealer, and the Gabonese government. The mask, which is believed to have been stolen from Gabon around 1917, was sold for 4.2 million euros at an auction after being found in a cupboard by the couple, who had sold it for 150 euros to the dealer.


The "Ngil" mask of the Fang people of Gabon sold on 26 March 2022 in France. © AFP/Pascal Guyot
The "Ngil" mask of the Fang people of Gabon sold on 26 March 2022 in France. © AFP/Pascal Guyot

The entire incident began in September 2021, when Mr. and Mrs. Fournier, an elderly couple in their 80s living in central France, had to clear their holiday home near the southern town of Alès, which belonged to Mr. Fournier's grandfather, René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier, who had served as a colonial governor in Central Africa during the early 20th century, under French colonial rule. There they found a wooden mask in the cupboard. Unaware of the value of the mask, the couple sold the mask to an antique dealer for 150 Euros. Subsequently, they learned that the mask was a rare 19th-century "Ngi" mask crafted by the Fang people of Gabon when they read about the mask being auctioned in the city of Montpelier for 4.2 million Euros.


The Fourniers upon learning of the mask's true value, launched a civil case against the dealer, seeking to annul the sale of the mask and asking for the auction’s proceeds to be given to them. They argued that they had been misled by the dealer into selling the mask for a fraction of its worth. However, they lost the case in the fall of 2022. They appealed the court decision, claiming the dealer failed “in his obligation to provide pre-contractual information” and committed “a breach of consent.”


As the appeal commenced at the Alès Tribunal in southern France on October 31, 2023, the Gabonese government interjected, asserting that the mask was originally stolen and should be repatriated. Gabon further filed a separate court case for the handling of stolen goods, accusing Mr Fournier’s grandfather of having stolen the Ngil mask and contending that it never rightfully belonged to him. They have requested the court to suspend the ongoing proceedings related to the sale of the Ngil mask until a decision is made on their complaint.


If the court accepts Gabon's petition to suspend the current legal proceedings on the sale of the Ngil mask, the country will be able to pursue its separate case for the handling of stolen goods and fight for the mask to be returned to its country of origin.


The court is expected to make its decision known on December 19. The outcome of the case could have significant implications for the repatriation of cultural artifacts and the protection of indigenous African cultural heritage.


The "Ngil" mask of the Fang people of Gabon sold on 26 March 2022 in France. © AFP/Pascal Guyot
The "Ngil" mask of the Fang people of Gabon sold on 26 March 2022 in France. © AFP/Pascal Guyot

 

Why the Ngil Mask?


Associated with the powerful Ngil society, the Ngil mask is a wooden mask carved by the Fang people of Gabon, who used it in ceremonies of the Ngil society, a secret group entrusted with maintaining justice within the Fang communities. According to a Sotheby’s listing for a similar Ngil mask, these artifacts “are among the rarest and most highly celebrated of all African artworks,” making them “keenly sought after as indispensable keystones of the best collections of African art.” Today, only a handful of Ngil masks remain in the world, according to court documents. In fact, an expert told French media that only about 10 of such items had ever been made by Fang masters. "This mask is rarer than a Leonardo da Vinci painting," he stated.




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Rare African Mask at the Center of Fierce Multimillion-Dollar Legal Battle and Repatriation Efforts

November 10, 2023

Fredrick Favour

3 min read