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The African Mask: From Worthless to Priceless

The African Mask
This photograph taken on March 24, 2022 shows a “Ngil” mask of the Fang people of Gabon ahead of its auction in March 2022. Photo by Pascal Guyot/AFP via Getty Images


The African mask is one of the main cultural interests of the Gabonese interim government. The government also experienced an armed takeover in August. Now, it started a court case to retrieve a historic mask. It sold for €4.2 million ($4.4 million) and is currently the subject of a French litigation. The thoughts are René-Victor Fournier stole the artifact in 1917.


Olivia Betoe to Retrieve the African Mask

jan van kessel allegory of africa, The African Mask
Allegory of Africa by Jan van Kessel, 1672, Web Gallery of Art.


Last month, French attorney Olivia Betoe disclosed that Gabon officials were able to get in touch with her. The officials asked her to be one of the two solicitors in charge of the lawsuit filed to retrieve the wooden Ngil mask. The mask was used in African occult ceremonies. Also, the thoughts are René-Victor Fournier stole the artifact in 1917.


The mask gained notoriety in the last several months. This occurred after the French pair who previously owned it sued the dealer they had sold it to in September 2021 for a meagre €150, or roughly $157. On X, the former Twitter, Betoe announced the two solicitors showed up in court on October 31.


rosalba carriera africa rococo pastel, The African Mask
Africa by Rosalba Carriera, c.1673-1757. Source: Old Masters Picture Gallery, Dresden


They asked for “voluntary intervention”. In light of Gabon’s request to have the mask returned, this would enable them to postpone the court’s ruling. Gabon also brought an instance before the Montpellier court. Betoe stated on Facebook that she was pursuing criminal charges for allegedly handling stolen property in September in an effort to return the commodities to their rightful owners.

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Collectif Gabon Occitanie – Retrieving Through Protest

south africa voc ships
Ships of the Dutch East India Company (VOC) near Table Bay, 1760s, via South African History Online


Additionally, Betoe said officials are looking at “how to make effective the restitution of all Gabonese art objects held abroad”. Collectif Gabon Occitanie, an activist group, spearheaded the attempts to retrieve the mask since it was sold for $4.4 million at sale in March 2022.


“When I think that all this started with a small protest by my association the Collectif Gabon Occitanie and today the whole world is talking about it!” Mbone Nze Gondjout of the CBO said on Facebook. “We are bringing our mask home!” CBO employee Solange Bizeau voiced her disapproval at the March sale.


natural wonders africa
natural wonders africa. Via Archive

“This mask has a soul, it was used to establish justice in our villages. The discussion in court has been about morality, but what about the morality of the spoliation of works of art and our dignity? Where is the morality in that?”, she said.

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By Angela DavicNews, Discoveries, In-depth Reporting, and AnalysisAngela is a journalism student at the Faculty of Political Science in Belgrade and received a scholarship for continued education in Prague. She completed her internship at the daily newspaper DANAS and worked as an executive editor at Talas.

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