French second-hand dealer triumphs in legal battle over $4.6m rare African mask sale

A French second-hand dealer has successfully defended his right to retain the $4.6m proceeds from the sale of a rare Ngil mask discovered in an elderly couple’s attic. The couple, who sold the mask to the dealer for $165, sued, claiming they were misled about its value. 

The Ngil mask, crafted by the Fang people of Gabon, is one of only about 10 known to exist, believed to have been used by the Ngil secret society in the 19th century. The judge ruled in favour of the dealer, stating that the couple failed to recognize the artwork’s true historical and artistic worth. The mask, initially acquired in 1917 by the plaintiff’s grandfather, a French colonial governor, was sold to the dealer and later auctioned to an unknown buyer.

The couple sought a share of the sale proceeds, alleging the dealer misled them. The dealer denied knowledge of the mask’s value, offering goodwill compensation of €300,000 ($328,936.50). The judge emphasised the couple’s lack of due diligence in assessing the mask’s value before selling it. 

This case sets a precedent, prompting the couple’s lawyer to note the need for professional advice before engaging in similar transactions. Additionally, Gabon’s claim for the mask’s return was rejected by the court. The incident reflects broader discussions about the restitution of African art, with French President Emmanuel Macron advocating for the return of cultural heritage to African countries.

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