Elderly Couple’s Legal Battle: From a $158 African Mask to a $4.4 Million Auction

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An elderly couple from Nîmes, France, who sold an African face mask for $158, is now embroiled in a lawsuit against the art dealer who purchased it, only to later sell it for millions of dollars.

In 2021, the unnamed couple decided to declutter their property and sold the unique mask to a local dealer known as ‘Mr. Z.’ Little did they know that the mask, a traditional Fang mask from Gabon used in weddings, funerals, and rituals, would turn out to be extremely valuable.

Mr. Z, who purchased the mask for $158, later auctioned it in Montpellier for an astonishing $4.4 million. The couple, aged 81 and 88, had no idea of the mask’s true worth until they read about Mr. Z’s successful sale in the newspaper.

The mask was initially brought to France by the husband’s grandfather, who had served as a colonial governor in Africa. Believing that they had been cheated, the elderly couple decided to sue Mr. Z.

The lawsuit has been ongoing, and on June 28, the court of appeals in Nîmes ruled that their case ‘appears to be well-founded in principle.’ As a result, the court froze the proceeds from the sale while the case continues. The couple alleges that Mr. Z knew the true value of the mask when he purchased it from them for only 0.00359090909 percent of the price it was later sold for.

The mask is believed to date back to the 19th century and was initially valued between €300,000 ($317,416) and €400,000 ($423,222) when Mr. Z sought professional advice. Court documents describe it as “exceptional in terms of its rarity,” with only a few other reference specimens known to exist worldwide, mainly in Western museums and collections.

Mr. Z reportedly offered the French couple €300,000 as compensation, but they rejected the offer. Their lawyer argues that Mr. Z is a second-hand dealer and not an antique dealer, and therefore cannot be considered a valuation professional, especially regarding African art.

The case is currently under review by a higher court in Nîmes, and a decision is pending.