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How Elderly Couple Sold Worthless African Mask for $157, Sues Buyer For $4.4 Million

A legal case making its way through the French court system is raising questions about whether a person who has sold an artwork or artifact later determined to have a much higher value can seek further compensation.

 

An unnamed 81-year-old woman and her 88-year-old husband came across an African mask while clearing out their second home. While most of the contents of the home went into a garage sale, they decided to sell the mask to a local antiques dealer, who agreed to buy the mask for €150, or about $157, in September 2021.

Months later, they discovered through reading the newspaper that their mask had just made €4.2 million ($4.4 million) at a specialized auction in Montpellier. As it turned out, it was a rare Fang mask used in rituals in an African secret society. The object was brought back from Gabon by the husband’s grandfather, who had been a colonial governer in Africa in the early 20th century.

 

The couple launched suit against the antiques dealer, who they believe cheated them. After several legal moves and counter moves, an appeals court in France determined on June 28 that their case against the dealer “appears to be well-founded in principle” and has frozen the proceeds of the sale as the case continues. The filing was made by the appeals court in Nimes and first reported by Le Monde. Artnet News has reached out to Frederic Mansat-Jaffre, the couple’s lawyer, for more information but did not hear back by press time.

 

The couple’s argument hinges on the suspicion that the dealer had a good idea of the true value of the object when he bought it from them. The antiques dealer did not display the mask at his shop and instead contacted the auction houses Drouot Estimation and Fauve Paris, which estimated it to be worth about €100–€120, and €400–€600 respectively.

 

Despite these valuations given by two auctioneers, he went on to seek a third opinion from a specialized sale of African objects in Montpellier. After ordering analysis using carbon-14 dating and mass spectrometry, the mask was dated to the 19th century and an ethnologist’s expert appraisal revealed it was used for purification rites by the Ngil society, a secret society that operated within the Fang ethnic group in Gabon until the 1920s.

 

The auction house placed the mask for sale with an estimate of between €300,000 and €400,000. The mask was sold for €4.2 million, about $4.4 million, at an auction in March 2022.

“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 collections,” according to court records reviewed by Artnet and translated from French.

 

The couple’s lawyer believes it is possible to cancel the sale due to their error in believing the mask to be “worthless,” Le Monde reported. The newspaper cited other cases such as the owners of paintings by Nicolas Poussin which were misattributed to lesser-known painter before they were later authenticated, resulting in those contracts being nullified and the owners obtaining restitution.

 

The case has already gone through several stages. The antiques dealer initially offered to settle out of court by paying the couple €300,000 euros, or about $315,000, for the mask but they were not able to reach an agreement because of the opposition of the couple’s children, according to court documents.

 

The couple then filed their case with a judicial court in Alès seeking an injunction to seize the proceeds of the sale as well as damages.The Alès court initially authorized a protective seizure which was carried out by a regional bank in southwestern France in May 2022, but the lower court ultimately sided with the antiques dealer, released the funds back to him, and ordering the couple to pay him for damages and other fees in the amount of €3,000, or about $3,148.

 

The couple appealed the judgment to the higher court in Nimes in November.

“The respondent is a second-hand dealer who unequivocally offers an appraisal service on his website,” the couple claimed, according to the court documents.

“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 couple also alleges that the antiques dealer conspired with their gardener, with whom he split the proceeds of the sale, to determine provenance information about the mask before approaching the auction houses.

 

The defense argued that the dealer “is a second-hand dealer and not an antique dealer and cannot be considered an valuation professional. He has no knowledge of African art.” They added that he sought the expert assessments at the initiative of the auctioneer, not because he had reason to believe it held greater value.

 

Though the case remains open, the appeals court has re-ordered the seizure of the proceeds of the sale, which amounts to €3.1 million, after deduction of costs and capital gains tax—until a judgement is made.

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