The vexed question of the fate of ancient, rare and culturally African artefacts has been raised again, this time over the acquisition and sales of a mask originating from Gabon in Central Africa.
The very rare mask, which is regarded as being of great spiritual value to the Gabonese people, is now at the centre of a legal battle in France over its ownership and sale at auction in 2021.
The mask is believed to have been made in the late 19th Century and belonged to the Ngil society in Gabon. The Ngil were a powerful secret group responsible for administering justice among the Fang communities.
Only a dozen Ngil masks are known to exist worldwide.
Mask’s route to market unclear
The route by which the Ngil mask came to auction is by no means clear. The auction catalogue claimed it had been “collected around 1917, under unknown circumstances, by the French colonial governor Rene-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier (1873-1931), probably during a tour of Gabon.”
Mask sells for 4.2 million euros (Sh684 million)
Some 100 years later and a Mr and Mrs Fournier, the husband being a grandson of Rene-Victor, sold the mask to a second-hand dealer for 150 euros (Sh24,4000) believing the dealer was offering a fair price. However, a few months later the mask was sold at auction for 4.2 million euros (Sh684 million).
Case to be adjudicated in France
The Fourniers are now suing the dealer claiming that he had failed “in his obligation to provide pre-contractual information.” The Fourniers want the sale annulled and the proceeds of the auction passed on to them.
The dealer’s defence is that he was unaware of the value of the mask when he bought it from the Fourniers and that in short, “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.”
The adjudication of the case is now being handled by the Ales Tribunal in southern France.
Gabon files separate case
The case, however, has not become more complicated after the Gabonese government formally requested that the Tribunal’s proceedings be suspended.
Gabon government files separate case over “stolen goods”
The Gabon government has now filed a separate court case in respect of the handling of stolen goods on the grounds that the Fourniers ancestor stole the Ngi mask and was not the rightful owner and neither therefore, are Mr and Mrs Fournier.
The petition from the government has yet to be decided upon by the Tribunal but if successful Gabon will be able to pursue a separate case for the handling of stolen goods paving the way for the mask to be returned its country of origin.
The return of the Ngil mask to Gabon, however, at present seems unlikely as it was not held in a pubic collection and as such its return cannot be demanded from France.
According to a report submitted to France’s President Emmanuel Macron in 2018, there are possibly over 80,000 artefacts from Sub-Saharan Africa currently held in French public collections.