A $157 African Mask Recently Sold For $4.4 Million

A couple in France had sold the mask for $157, initially thinking it was of little worth—however, in a shocking turn of events, the antiques dealer who purchased it later sold it for $4.4 million.

A French couple’s current legal battle with a secondhand antiques dealer is showing how one should never judge a book by its cover. This refers to an African mask that a couple sold to a secondhand dealer for $157, only to find out that he later sold it through auction for $4.4 million. As it turns out, the mask was a lot more valuable than the couple thought, but what exactly warranted the price jump and what issue is the couple bringing to the forefront? 

READ ALSO: Rare Find: Painting Valued At $15,000 Discovered To Be A Rembrandt—Now Could Fetch $18 Million

The African mask that sold for $4.4 million at a special auction in Montpellier
The African mask that sold for $4.4 million at a special auction in Montpellier/Photo via Instagram @galerie_bernard_dulon

A Major Misjudgement 

The unnamed husband and wife—an 88-year-old and 81-year-old respectively—encountered the mask while clearing out their second home in 2021, as per Business Insider. Artnet News added that while the couple gave most of their items to a garage sale, they decided to sell the African artifact to a secondhand dealer for $157. 

The couple initially deemed the piece to be of little value, hence the small price tag. However, they later found out through a newspaper that the dealer sold the piece for $4.4 million in a special auction in Montpellier, according to Art News

Another rare Ngil mask from the Louvre’s collection
Another rare Ngil mask from the Louvre’s collection/Photo by Marie-Lan Nguyen via Wikimedia Commons

The antique dealer had apparently sought the opinions of experts and auction houses in re-examining the mask’s origins and value. After carbon-14 dating and spectrometry, experts concluded that the mask came from the 19th century. 

What’s more, an ethnologist appraised the piece as a rare traditional mask from the Fang ethnic group in Gabon, as per Artnet News. Another discovery that added to its intrigue is the fact that an all-male secret society within the group—the Ngil society—used it during purification rituals. 

This kind of mask is a rare sight outside of Gabon, and less than a dozen exist in Western collections and museums around the world based on court records. According to Art News, the couple shared that the husband’s grandfather was a colonial governor who brought the mask to France himself. 

Ensuing Legal Battle 

After discovering the mask’s high auction price, the couple filed a lawsuit against the antiques dealer for withholding vital information during their transaction. They believe that the man had always known the true value of the mask, and simply didn’t disclose it. 

To support their claims, the couple pointed out that the dealer didn’t display the piece in his shop. Instead, he approached two auction houses—Drouot Estimation and Fauve Paris—to get an estimate of the mask’s worth. The auction houses stated that the piece was worth €600 or less, as per Artnet News

The rare mask in an exhibit by Galerie Pierre-Alain Challier, Paris
The rare mask in an exhibit by Galerie Pierre-Alain Challier, Paris/Photo via Instagram @galerie_bernard_dulon

Undeterred, the dealer turned to more experts for a third opinion, hence the carbon dating and spectrometry. The results greatly increased the mask’s initial value to €300,000 to €400,000, though it eventually sold for €4.2 million ($4.4 million) in the 2022 auction. 

Then, more news came out revealing that the dealer had conspired with the couple’s gardener, asking for pertinent information to determine the mask’s provenance before taking it to auction houses, added Artnet News.

The traditional Ngil mask at another angle
The traditional Ngil mask at another angle/Photo via Instagram @galerie_bernard_dulon

The dealer offered to pay the couple €300,000 euros (around $315,000), but their children rebuffed him, according to Business Insider. At first, a judicial court in Alès allowed the couple a protective seizure of the proceeds in May 2022, as per Art News. However, a lower court later sided with the dealer, reversing the order and returning the proceeds to him. 

The couple, however, will appeal the judgment to the higher court in Nimes this November, as per Artnet News

Banner photo via Instagram @galerie_bernard_dulon. 

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