Authorities in Gabon have launched a legal battle to get back a precious wooden mask used in secret ceremonies by the Fang ethnic group, which was brought to France in colonial times and sold at auction earlier this year for €4.2 million.
Lawyers for the transitional government in Gabon, whose long-time president was overthrown in a coup two months ago, appeared in court in Alès in southern France on Tuesday to demand that the sale be cancelled and the mask repatriated.
They argue that the artefact, one of only a dozen known to exist, was taken from Gabon illegally during French colonial rule.
Carved in tropical fuma wood, painted with white clay and decorated with a raffia beard, the mask in the shape of an elongated face was made to be worn by members of the Ngil: a secret society of the Fang people that would go from village to village hunting out residents suspected of wrongdoing and delivering punishments, sometimes fatal.
It was brought to France in the early 20th century by a colonial governor, René-Victor Fournier, who is believed to have acquired it on a visit to what was then French Equatorial Africa.
"No one can truly believe that the Gabonese people spontaneously gave this mask of immeasurable value to some passing governor as a welcome gift," argued the lawyer representing Gabon's case, Jean-Christophe Bessy.
Gabon has also filed a complaint for receiving stolen goods, which is being examined by French prosecutors to determine if there are grounds to pursue criminal charges.
It remains unclear where the mask is now. It was sold to an anonymous bidder at an auction house in the southern city of Montpellier in March and has not been seen since.
Fournier's descendants have also launched a separate court case to get the rare mask back, arguing that they were duped into selling for cheap to an antiques dealer who would then go on to trade it for millions of euros.
Until two years ago the mask lay in the attic of the Fournier family home, where it had remained forgotten for decades. Its owners, a couple in their 80s, discovered it during a clear-out and sold it to the dealer in September 2021 for €150.
They argue that the trader knowingly underpaid them for the mask and want the sale declared void. But his lawyers insist that he was not aware of the item's value before putting it up for auction - where it was initially estimated at €300,000-400,000 before finally selling for €4.2 million, plus around €1 million in added costs and fees.
Protesters describing themselves as descendants of the Fang people objected to the auction, calling the mask a "colonial ill-gotten gain".
French colonial authorities outlawed the Ngil in the early 20th century, leading to the loss or destruction of many of the society's ritual objects.
Of the dozen or so other genuine Ngil masks that survived, several are kept in museums, including the state-owned Quai Branly museum in Paris.
The last one sold on the private market fetched €5.9 million at auction in 2006, making it one of the most expensive pieces of African artwork in the world.
While there is growing pressure on France and other European countries to return cultural treasures looted from Africa during the colonial era, most restitutions to date have been made from public collections.
Private owners cannot be forced to give objects back unless they are proven to have been acquired illegally.