Elderly Couple Sold Mask for $165 — But It Was Worth Millions

By: Lauren | Published: Jan 03, 2024

When an elderly French couple found an old mask in their attic, they didn’t think much about it. In fact, they sold it for only $165.

However, the art dealer who bought the mask went on to sell it for more than $4 million, and the couple decided to sue the dealer for deceiving them. And to make the situation even more complicated, the government of Gabon, where the mask is originally from, is also suing for ownership.

The French Couple Had No Idea They Had a Fortune in Their Attic

Mr. and Mrs. Fournier, 88 and 81 years old, were organizing their attic in France when they found an African mask (via CNN).

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Elderly couple holding hands and walking through a field

Source: Freepik

According to court documents, they didn’t know anything about the mask, so when they were offered $165 in September 2021 from a local art dealer, they accepted happily and went about their lives.

The Art Dealer Sold the Mask for $4.4 Million

Only a couple of months later, the art dealer sold the very same mask at an auction for an incredible €4 million ($4.4 million).

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Man admiring a Ngil mask from Gabon at an auction

Source: @sauterne/X

As one could imagine, Mr. and Mrs. Fournier were not only in shock that they had something so valuable in their attic, but they were also livid with the art dealer who they believed had completely swindled them.

Suing the Art Dealer Didn’t Exactly Go to Plan

The Fourniers sued the dealer in civil court as quickly as possible. However, the French courts did not side with them as they had hoped.

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Lawyers going over paperwork

Source: Freepik

In fact, the court actually reprimanded the couple for their lack of care and awareness before and during the sale.

The Fourniers Could Easily Have Found More Information on the Mask

The consensus of the courts was met with general agreement from the public. Although some certainly feel as if the older couple had been hoodwinked, others argued that they easily could have found the mask’s true value online in only moments.

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Ngil mask from Gabon on display at an art museum

Source: Alamy/Alamy

Other masks from the same time period sit in some of the world’s best museums and have been sold at public auctions for hundreds of thousands of dollars, and in some cases, even millions.

Where Is the Mask Originally From?

The mask is quite clearly from Gabon, a country in West Africa, and, in fact, these Gabon masks are extremely famous and beloved by art historians.

Ngil mask, made of wood, Fang culture, 19th century; in the Louvre Museum

Source: Britannica

It seems that the couple received the Gabon mask from Mr. Fournier’s grandfather, René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier, who brought the mask home after living in Central Africa in the 1900s as a colonial governor.

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The Gabon Mask Has Important Historical Significance

It’s important to note that this mask, as well as the many others in circulation, are not just valuable pieces of art, but important historical artifacts.

Mission-House of the Catholics at the Gabon, 1875, from 'Illustrated Travels' by HW Bates

Source: The Print Collector/Heritage Images/Getty Images

Historians believe that the masks were used by Gabon’s secret Ngil society for rituals before their culture was banned in the early 1900s by French colonizers. “For Westerners, the mask is an art object,” Betoe Bi Evie told CNN, “but for Africans, for the Gabonese … it’s a ritual object used to ensure peace in society. It’s very important.”

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Who Is the Rightful Owner of the Gabon Mask?

The Fourniers argued in court that, as the original owners of the mask, they deserved the $4.4 million it made. But many argue that neither the couple, the art dealer, or even the most recent buyer is the rightful owner of the mask.

Map of Western Africa, highlighting Gabon

Source: Britannica

They say that it is the people of Gabon who deserve to have the important historical artifact, not a rich art collector from another country.

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The Government of Gabon Is Fighting for the Piece of Its History

The Collectif Gabon Occitanie is a group that fights for the people and historical preservation of the country of Gabon. This group, as well as the government of the country, are claiming two things: One, that the mask had been stolen by the Fourniers’ grandfather, and two, that the artifact is rightfully theirs.

African masks in a museum

Solange Bizeau of the Collectif Gabon Occitanie told The Guardian, “Today this court case is about the grandchildren of the governor versus a secondhand dealer. But neither of them is legitimate in terms of this mask. What we want is the restitution of this mask to Gabon.”

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Gabon and France Have a Solid Relationship

Gabon fought for its independence from France in 1958 and was officially autonomous by 1960, though the two countries retain a friendly relationship.

Ali Bongo Ondimba, President of Gabon with Francois Hollande, President of France at COP21

Source: Antoine Gyori/Corbis/Getty Images

And while the justice system in France has ruled that the Fourniers’ grandfather did not steal the mask, they are still debating whether or not it should be returned to the Gabon government.

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A Mask of Great Historical and Spiritual Importance

One of Gabon’s most potent arguments for the return of the mask is that it’s not only a historical artifact, but also, a piece of great spiritual significance.

Illustration of a ceremony in Gabon from the 19th century

Source: MediaStorehouse

Olivia Betoe Bi Evie who is representing Gabon in the case explained that the mask is a ritual object signifying peace within their society.

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This Story Is Part of a Bigger Issue

It’s yet to be seen whether or not the French courts will side with Gabon and return this specific mask to the country from which it came.

Fang initiation mask, from Gabon, 19th-20th century

Source: Art Images/Getty Images

But the fight for a piece of their heritage sparks a much bigger question as to whether or not all the masks from Gabon, and artifacts from every colonized country, should be returned to the people of their homeland.

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