In Montpellier, an auction of a fang mask disrupted by a supporter of restitution

Fang mask, from Gabon, dating from the beginning of the 20th century, on March 24, 2022. Estimated between 300,000 euros and 400,000 euros, the ritual object was sold at auction in Montpellier (Hérault), on March 26.

Announced as an event, the auction of a fang mask (Gabon), on March 26 in Montpellier, did not disappoint expectations. She was exceptional in many ways. The first is ethnographic and artistic: 55 centimeters high, carved in cheese wood, patinated with kaolin and having preserved its finery of vegetable fibers, the work, which dates from the end of the 19and century, is one of the few surviving examples of this type of white mask and one of the most powerful – only about ten are known, and this one had never been exhibited or published. They were worn by members of the Ngil secret society, who were responsible, in particular, for prosecuting individuals suspected of evil witchcraft.

To say that it is an exceptional piece, as did, before the sale, the auctioneer Jean-Christophe Giuseppi and the ethnologist Louis Perrois, author of the scientific notice, is therefore justified. Only the Ngil mask at the Denver Art Museum in the United States is comparable to it, so much so that they could be by the same author. These masks are all the more rare because, as Louis Perrois points out, “the traditional rites of customary justice of Ngil society were abandoned in the 1920s, which put an end to the creation of the instruments of this institution”. In other words, more clearly, a colonial decision is the cause of their abandonment.

Extraordinary qualities

The other particular aspect of this sale is financial: the extraordinary qualities of the mask came at a high price. The initial estimate was between 300,000 and 400,000 euros. A European collector well known to Parisian dealers – but fond of discretion – won for a final bid of 4.2 million euros, or 5.25 million with costs. This is the second highest price ever achieved for a Fang mask, after the Ngil from the Vérité collection, which reached 5.75 million in June 2006.

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Finally, there is political reason. While the bids were only at 600,000 euros, a man, French of Gabonese origin, stood up to declare that the mask “was stolen in Gabon and must return to his country of origin”. He continued : “If you heard me, this item wouldn’t be for sale here. We will file a complaint, and this object will return to Gabon. » The sale was briefly interrupted by his intervention.

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The return to the countries of origin of the works “collected” during the colonial period had been raised by Emmanuel Macron in his speech in Ouagadougou, on November 28, 2017. He allowed the recent return to Benin of royal objects taken during the conquest from Abomey by French troops, previously on display at the Quai Branly Museum. In the current state of the law, restitution only concerns public collections and not those of private individuals. But, in the case of this mask, the personality of the first French owner is not insignificant.

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