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French couple aren’t owed any money in African mask case worth millions, court rules

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The elderly French couple sold a “very rare” African mask for 150 euros, when it was actually worth millions. A court ruled that their own carelessness was to blame.

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A French couple who sold an “extremely rare” African mask for 150 euros, only to discover it was worth millions, have had their request to quash the original sale rejected by a court in southern France.

The couple, in their 80s and retired, argued that there had been an “authentication error” and that the buyer of the mask, a small-town junk dealer, knew how much the item was really worth when he bought it in 2021.

But the court rejected their requests, saying the couple had made no attempt to have the mask appraised before selling it.

“Their negligence and carelessness characterize the inexcusable nature of their mistake. Therefore, their request to cancel the sale on this basis is rejected,” the judges said in their decision.

The court also found that the antiquities dealer, who is not an expert on African art, did not deceive them about the price and that the couple was not owed any money.

As proof of his honesty, the trader had initially offered to pay the couple the value of 300,000 euros, the starting price of the mask at auction. But the couple’s children refused and instead chose to sue the drug dealer for the full amount.

The auctioneers described the item as an “extremely rare 19th century mask belonging to a secret society of the Fang people of Gabon”, a Bantu ethnic group.

It is believed that only about ten masks of this type still exist. An auction house told French media that this type of mask was “even rarer than a painting by Leonardo da Vinci.”

The couple, in their 80s and retired, sold the mask and other artefacts found in their second home in the Gard region of southern France. Most of the items, including the mask, belonged to an ancestor who was once a colonial governor in Africa.

Their lawyer said his clients were stunned by the court’s refusal and are considering appealing the ruling.

The court also rejected a second motion by the Gabonese government to cancel the sale and return the mask to its country of origin, saying there was not enough information about how the mask ended up in France to rule in their favor.

At the beginning of Alès’ trial, two lawyers from Gabon’s transitional government had filed a motion to “obtain the subsequent annulment of the sale of this mask, its repatriation and the delivery of the funds.”

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