When an elderly couple held a garage sale after selling their second home in the south of France, little did they know they would become embroiled in a legal battle with millions of euros at stake
The 88-year-old and his 81-year-old wife, identified by their initials in court documents but confirmed to CNN as Mr. and Mrs. Fournier by their lawyer, listed for sale an ancient African mask, which had been inherited from Mr. Fournier’s grandfather.
The grandfather, René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier, had served as a colonial governor in Central Africa during the early 20th century, when significant parts of the continent were under French colonial rule.
The Fourniers sold their mask in September of 2021 to a second-hand dealer for 150 euros, court documents show. According to their lawyer, Frédéric Mansat Jaffré, the two were unaware of the mask’s market value and believed the dealer was offering a fair price.
A few months later, their lawyer said they learned through a newspaper article that their old mask was being auctioned off, and that it was worth substantially more than what the dealer paid.
Two days later, it sold for 4.2 million euros, a sale receipt shared with CNN showed, equivalent to more than $4.5 million.
The Fourniers launched a civil case against the dealer which they lost in the fall of 2022 and were ordered to pay court costs.
Now they are appealing the earlier court decision, claiming the dealer failed “in his obligation to provide pre-contractual information” and committed “a breach of consent.”
The couple seeks to annul the sale of the mask and want the auction’s proceeds to be given to them.
CNN has contacted the dealer’s lawyer for further comments.
An extremely rare artifact
As the appeal commenced at the Alès Tribunal in southern France on Tuesday, the Gabonese government waded in and formally requested a suspension of the proceedings..
The dealer’s defense, according to court documents, maintains that he was unaware of the value of the mask when he purchased it from the couple and only discovered it once he went to the auction house to have it appraised.
Court documents show that his lawyers argued that “the sellers have no grounds for claiming error. They themselves offered the item for sale at 150 euros. They made an inaccurate economic assessment of the value presented by the mask.”
Gabon has filed a separate court case for the handling of stolen goods, accusing Mr Fournier’s ancestor of having stolen the Ngil mask and therefore never being its rightful owner, Olivia Betoe Bi Evie, one of the lawyers representing Gabon, told CNN
If the court accepts its petition to suspend the current legal proceedings on the sale of the Ngil mask, the country will be able to pursue their 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 mask is an extremely rare artifact of great spiritual value to the Gabonese people, Betoe Bi Evie told CNN.
Dating from the 19th century, it belonged to the powerful Ngil society, a secret group tasked with administering justice within the Fang communities of Gabon, according to Betoe Bi Evie.
“For Westerners, the mask is an art object,” Betoe Bi Evie said, “but for Africans, for the Gabonese… it’s a ritual object used to ensure peace in society. It’s very important.”
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.”
The auction catalog for the mask said it had been “collected around 1917, under unknown circumstances, by the French colonial governor René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier (1873-1931), probably during a tour of Gabon,” according to CNN affiliate BFMTV.
A fraught legal battle
The couple’s lawyer argued in court that the dealer deliberately withheld information about the origins of the mask from them and planned to split the money with their gardener, who had provided him with information about the Fourniers’ ties to the former colonial governor.
It was through this information that the dealer was able to deduce the origins of the mask, Mansat Jaffré, the lawyer, told CNN.
The dealer and the gardener allegedly visited the auction house together, presenting themselves as co-owners of the mask, the sellers assert in court documents.
The couple say the dealer did not inform them of his relationship with their gardener, nor that he had any intention of auctioning off their mask, according to their lawyer.
“We think he (the dealer) already had an idea at the back of his head, and that he knew the mask was rare,” Mansat Jaffré told CNN. “My clients… are not art collectors, they’re amateurs… they didn’t know better,” he added.
After the Fourniers discovered the mask was being auctioned off, they contacted the dealer, who offered 300,000 euros in compensation, equivalent to the auction house’s estimate of the mask’s worth, Mansat Jaffré said.
The couple’s children advised their parents to refuse the sum and file a lawsuit.
For the moment, 3.2 million euros, the amount the dealer earned from the sale of the mask after tax deductions and commission fees, have been frozen in his bank account by the courts, Mansat Jaffré said.
The trial has attracted attention among France’s large African diaspora and among those at the court were several Gabonese protesters demanding that the mask be returned to their country.
Some were also present at the auction house when the mask was sold, back in March 2022, according to Solange Bizeau, president of the Collectif Gabon Occitanie, the organization behind the protests.
She told CNN that she was “shocked” to see how little respect for her culture was displayed in the courthouse.
“The two lawyers told the court that we, the Gabonese people and the Gabonese State, have no legitimate claim to (the mask),” said Bizou. “I was shocked to see that they (those participating in the trial) weren’t interested in the mask, they didn’t care what it meant for us, all they wanted was money.”
Today, only a dozen Ngil masks remain in the world, according to court documents.
Many, according to Betoe Bi Evie, are in the hands of private collectors. So far, the identity of the mask’s buyer remains unknown to everyone except the dealer and the auction house, neither of whom has disclosed it, Mansat Jaffré told CNN.
Calls for restitution
French President Emmanuel Macron has repeatedly called for the restitution of colonial artifacts from French collections to their original owners. After his election in 2017, he expressed his desire for “the conditions to be in place within five years for temporary or permanent restitutions of African heritage to Africa.”
According to a report submitted to Macron in 2018, there are at least 80,000 objects from Sub-Saharan Africa held in French public collections. Until now, only a handful have been returned to their countries of origin.
Some artifacts have been returned indefinitely, like the 26 looted royal objects that comprise the Treasure of Behanzin, restituted to Benin in 2020.
Others were returned to their birthplaces on long-term loans, like a sword and scabbard of West African leader Omar Tall, currently exhibited in Senegal’s Museum of Black Civilizations.
In addition to Benin and Senegal, five other African countries – Chad, Madagascar, the Ivory Coast, Ethiopia and Mali – have made official requests for restitutions from the French government.
However, as the Ngil mask at the center of the ongoing trial wasn’t held in a public collection, Gabon cannot demand its restitution from France.
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