Lawyers for the Gabonese authorities requested on Tuesday a stay of proceedings at the opening of a legal action brought in Alès (Gard) by a couple who had sold a Fang mask for 150 euros, then resold it for 4.2 million euros.
The octogenarian couple from Eure-et-Loire took legal action to cancel the sale to a second-hand dealer in 2021 of the carved wooden mask that belonged to an ancestor, a former colonial governor in Africa, the value of which they were unaware of at the time, according to their lawyer.
It was only six months later that the couple discovered, while reading their newspaper, that their old mask, "an extremely rare mask from the 19th century, the prerogative of a secret society of the Fang people in Gabon", was going to be sold to the auction in Montpellier.
But in the introduction to the trial which opened Tuesday morning, two lawyers representing the transitional government of Gabon requested that their voluntary intervention be deemed admissible, in order to "achieve the successive cancellation of sales of this mask, its repatriation and the consignment of funds", pleaded Me Olivia Betoe.
They also demand "a stay of proceedings" to continue in parallel a criminal procedure launched at the Montpellier judicial court after Gabon filed a complaint for receiving stolen goods in September.
“A voluntary intervention is a legal tool. We can claim this mask for laudable conditions which are part of a cultural context, but that is not the subject today”, retorted the lawyer of the second-hand dealer, Me Patricia Pijot.
The initial sellers, an 88-year-old retired clerk and his wife, an 81-year-old stay-at-home mother, called on the second-hand dealer in September 2021 to get rid of objects accumulated in their second home in Gard.
Included in the lot was the mask, whose aesthetic inspired the painters Modigliani and Picasso and of which only around ten copies remain in the world.
The catalog of the Montpellier auction room specified that it had been "collected around 1917, in unknown circumstances, by the French colonial governor René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier (1873-1931), probably during a tour in Gabon ".
During the sale, on March 26, 2022, the mask was sold for 4.2 million euros, excluding fees, practically a record for an object of this type, despite protests in the Gabonese room demanding its "restitution" to his home country.