The Numismatic Bibliomania Society



The E-Sylum: Volume 26, Number 41, October 8, 2023, Article 30


While non-numismatic, this story from France illustrates a contentious issue that often surfaces when a dealer's profit becomes public. -Editor

Gabon Ngil mask A legal case making its way through the French court system is raising questions about whether a person who has sold an artwork or artifact later determined to have a much higher value can seek further compensation.

An unnamed 81-year-old woman and her 88-year-old husband came across an African mask while clearing out their second home. While most of the contents of the home went into a garage sale, they decided to sell the mask to a local antiques dealer, who agreed to buy the mask for €150, or about $157, in September 2021.

Months later, they discovered through reading the newspaper that their mask had just made €4.2 million ($4.4 million) at a specialized auction in Montpellier. As it turned out, it was a rare Fang mask used in rituals in an African secret society. The object was brought back from Gabon by the husband's grandfather, who had been a colonial governer in Africa in the early 20th century.

The couple launched suit against the antiques dealer, who they believe cheated them. After several legal moves and counter moves, an appeals court in France determined on June 28 that their case against the dealer appears to be well-founded in principle and has frozen the proceeds of the sale as the case continues.

The couple's argument hinges on the suspicion that the dealer had a good idea of the true value of the object when he bought it from them. The antiques dealer did not display the mask at his shop and instead contacted the auction houses Drouot Estimation and Fauve Paris, which estimated it to be worth about €100–€120, and €400–€600 respectively.

Despite these valuations given by two auctioneers, he went on to seek a third opinion from a specialized sale of African objects in Montpellier. After ordering analysis using carbon-14 dating and mass spectrometry, the mask was dated to the 19th century and an ethnologist's expert appraisal revealed it was used for purification rites by the Ngil society, a secret society that operated within the Fang ethnic group in Gabon until the 1920s.

The auction house placed the mask for sale with an estimate of between €300,000 and €400,000. The mask was sold for €4.2 million, about $4.4 million, at an auction in March 2022.

The case has already gone through several stages. The antiques dealer initially offered to settle out of court by paying the couple €300,000 euros, or about $315,000, for the mask but they were not able to reach an agreement because of the opposition of the couple's children, according to court documents.

I'm having trouble finding it in our archive, but I recall a story from Western Pennsylvania where a grandson sold 19th century U.S. Proof sets found in a piano bench to a coin dealer who later auctioned them for millions. In that case there was the aspect of stolen property muddling the title to the items. But this was a sale made willingly by the owners of the item. If the dealer didn't have an inkling that the mask might be more valuable he wouldn't have bought it in the first place, and his fruitless trips to two auction houses justify the low offer. But he persevered and was rewarded by the third auction house. I can understand the original seller's remorse, but they and their children could have done that due diligence themselves and chose not to. I think the dealer's post-sale settlement offer was very fair and likely not even required under the law. What do readers think about this topic? -Editor

To read the complete article, see:
An Elderly Couple Sold a ‘Worthless' African Mask for $157. Now They Are Suing the Buyer Who Auctioned It for $4.4 Million (

Wayne Homren, Editor

NBS ( Web

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