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Elderly Couple Sells African Mask for $158, it Auctions for $4.4 Million


Al Kowsky

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An elderly couple sold a 19th century African Ngil mask used by the Fang people in secret rituals for $158 that was later sold at auction for $4.4 million¬†ūüėģ! They decided to sue the dealer they sold the mask to & the auction proceeds have been frozen. Attached below is an article published be the INSIDER.

NgilFangMaskadj..jpg.08129c457080446c1d123f0f185142d2.jpg

https://www.insider.com/couple-lawsuit-sold-africa-mask-fang-gabon-millions-auction-2023-10

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If this is true, I hope the elderly couple win a substantial percentage of the value of the mask. At least half plus the cost of the legal fees. They probably deserve to have the mask returned to them and only pay that dealer back $158.00. They were deceived.

A deal is not always a deal.

Sickening greed.

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This does seem outrageous assuming the dealer they sold it to realized the approximate value. Getting a good deal or making a lowball offer is one thing, but this seems something else altogether (assuming the dealer did know the value). I'd be interested what aspects of law, if any, covers this though.

It reminds me of a case where someone knowingly bought an egg-sized star ruby in the rough (at the Tuscon gem show?) from a dealer for ~$20 and resold it for for over a million.

I wonder, morally or legally, does/should it make a difference what the self-professed or actual knowledge level of the deal participants is ?! Does it make a difference if someone makes a ridiculously low offer without making any claims about it being the value of the object (whether they are aware or not) ?

> A deal is not always a deal.

I think there may be some legal basis to that - doesn't contract law require there to be some equitable basis to the contract ? (e.g. a contract to buy an aircraft carrier for $1 would not be legally binding since it's not remotely a fair deal).

 

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33 minutes ago, Heliodromus said:

> A deal is not always a deal.

I think there may be some legal basis to that - doesn't contract law require there to be some equitable basis to the contract ? (e.g. a contract to buy an aircraft carrier for $1 would not be legally binding since it's not remotely a fair deal).

Yes, that's exactly how it is.

There is a principle in Roman law which is called laesio enormis (wikipedia), according to which abnormal harm of one contracting party should be avoided. Many countries included this into their jurisdiction, but usually the principle of "freedom of contract" is more important, therefore the concept of laesio enormis is not so important in daily life.

More importantly, every contract is void if one party obviously did not understand the core aspects of the agreement due to inexperience, deception or coercion. In this case, the elderly couple who sold the mask was most likely deceived.

(But please take everything that I write about law with a grain of salt - my law studies were >10 years ago and I'm not working as a lawyer.)

Edited by Salomons Cat
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After reading the article it seems to me even other auction houses thought it was basically worthless. The dealer went through a good bit of time and probably expense authenticating it. He obviously knew he was taking a large risk that it was worthless, did all the legwork and realistically probably spent his whole life, as many specialists here do, learning everything that it took to properly authenticate and market this piece that the prior owners seemingly knew next to nothing about. Now, perhaps there's some more information not in the article but just based on what's in the article I don't really think he did anything wrong.

Plenty of us here watch the various sales venues for misidentified or under-attributed coins with an eye towards finding underpriced coins, in some cases massively underpriced(I've seen a few cases as much as 100x or so). I don't particularly see a difference. Sometimes they're sold by dealers, other times they're sold by private collectors, in both cases they didn't take the time or didn't have the knowledge to understand what they had but none of us is under any obligation to share valuable information with sellers.

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I wonder if this depends on the specifics of the interaction that the couple had with the antique dealer in order to sell the mask.

Presumably, the couple went to the antique dealer to rely on his/her expertise in the authenticity and evaluation of the mask's value.  In this case, at least in the U.S., I think the antique dealer is assumed to have expertise and thus must advise the couple in good faith, which obviously did not happen here.

On the other hand, it's possible that the couple said something like "We have this old mask that nobody wants and we just want to sell it.  How much will you give us for it?"  In this case, maybe the couple didn't ask for advice or expertise from the antique dealer, and U.S. law may be a bit fuzzier under these circumstances.  

It will be informative to hear what DonnaML has to say about this.

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5 minutes ago, idesofmarch01 said:

I wonder if this depends on the specifics of the interaction that the couple had with the antique dealer in order to sell the mask.

Presumably, the couple went to the antique dealer to rely on his/her expertise in the authenticity and evaluation of the mask's value.  In this case, at least in the U.S., I think the antique dealer is assumed to have expertise and thus must advise the couple in good faith, which obviously did not happen here.

On the other hand, it's possible that the couple said something like "We have this old mask that nobody wants and we just want to sell it.  How much will you give us for it?"  In this case, maybe the couple didn't ask for advice or expertise from the antique dealer, and U.S. law may be a bit fuzzier under these circumstances.  

It will be informative to hear what DonnaML has to say about this.

I have to leave in a few minutes for a doctor's appointment, but suffice it to say that I believe it all depends on what the dealer knew at the time he paid the $158. As a dealer in goods, if he had superior knowledge of material facts regarding the mask's value, but failed to disclose them, the couple could have a valid claim for fraudulent concealment/non-disclosure. 

Edited by DonnaML
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I had read several articles about this mask before posting this one. This is a very complicated case. It seems the dealer who paid $158 for the mask knew little to nothing about it but intuitively knew it was good. The mask was taken to a number of different auction houses who knew virtually nothing about too. The dealer then did more investigating & talked to someone who knew the man who actually brought the mask back from Africa, establishing a reasonable¬†provenance for it. The dealer didn't share this info with the elderly couple. He then approached the last auction house that put an estimate of 300,000 to 400,000 euros on it where it fetched $4.4 million. The dealer wanted to settle out of court for $315,000 but the couple rejected the offer on the advice of relatives. It will be interesting to see how this case will be resolved¬†ūüėŹ.

Edited by Al Kowsky
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1 hour ago, Al Kowsky said:

The dealer wanted to settle out of court for $315,000 but the couple rejected the offer on the advice of relatives. It will be interesting to see how this case will be resolved¬†ūüėŹ.

This seems like an extremely generous offer to me. Likely more than they would have been offered by any dealer who knew what it was and believed it was authentic given the auction estimate. It seems like these are rare enough that no one really knew what it would sell for at auction.

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I don't think the dealer can claim they knew nothing about its value. They might not have known it was $4m (who could) but being a dealer of antiquities they knew how these things can go. They certainly knew it wasn't $158. Even I would've known that. You can't even get a new one for $158. Any good dealer would tell the couple that they weren't sure and would check with experts before they made an offer. Then they could've bought it for $315,000 - which is what they're trying now, but too late.

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2 hours ago, red_spork said:

This seems like an extremely generous offer to me. Likely more than they would have been offered by any dealer who knew what it was and believed it was authentic given the auction estimate. It seems like these are rare enough that no one really knew what it would sell for at auction.

I agree with you¬†ūüėČ. I think turning down the $315,000 was a mistake. I would have grabbed the money & said thank you. The mask was like a winning lottery ticket that the elderly couple never scratched off to see if it was a winner¬†ūüėŹ.

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2 hours ago, John Conduitt said:

I don't think the dealer can claim they knew nothing about its value. They might not have known it was $4m (who could) but being a dealer of antiquities they knew how these things can go. They certainly knew it wasn't $158. Even I would've known that. You can't even get a new one for $158. Any good dealer would tell the couple that they weren't sure and would check with experts before they made an offer. Then they could've bought it for $315,000 - which is what they're trying now, but too late.

It wasn't until the dealer did the research uncovering the provenance that the magnitude of the mask came to light. The fact that the dealer didn't share that info with the old couple does seem rather sleezy. 

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Feels similar to people suing their friends or family for winning lottery on a ticket that they gifted. But in this case it's much worse, they sold it to someone, after which they have absolutely no claim to the product. If they sell a land to a party and the buyer finds diamond or gold nuggets in the yard while doing gardening does the seller have any claim on that? (but the government may, but that's a different story)

As someone who 'hunts' for rarities in 'misattributed' coins, i think it's the duty of the seller to properly analyse what they are selling before finalising the deal. I often see youtube videos on garage sales where people simply sell gold and gemstones for literal cents! seriously, if they are ignorant on what they sell, maybe Fortuna doesn't want to be in that place! 

It also seems like the buyer wants to offer them $315,000 but they turned it down, now that's just pure greed (probably driven by their relatives).

 

Edited by JayAg47
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40 minutes ago, JayAg47 said:

Feels similar to people suing their friends or family for winning lottery on a ticket that they gifted. But in this case it's much worse, they sold it to someone, after which they have absolutely no claim to the product. If they sell a land to a party and the buyer finds diamond or gold nuggets in the yard while doing gardening does the seller have any claim on that? (but the government may, but that's a different story)

As someone who 'hunts' for rarities in 'misattributed' coins, i think it's the duty of the seller to properly analyse what they are selling before finalising the deal. I often see youtube videos on garage sales where people simply sell gold and gemstones for literal cents! seriously, if they are ignorant on what they sell, maybe Fortuna doesn't want to be in that place! 

It also seems like the buyer wants to offer them $315,000 but they turned it down, now that's just pure greed (probably driven by their relatives).

 

I disagree.

It‚Äės not like the elderly couple went to the flea market. No, they went to the dealer because they believed that he was a specialist and they relied on his expertise. And apparently they weren‚Äėt completely wrong, because this dealer was able to sell the mask for $4.4 million later.

I think that it will be very difficult for the dealer to convince anyone that he knew near to nothing about that mask.

Edited by Salomons Cat
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After thinking about this some more, I am one of an elderly couple now. I sure am glad it wasn't "us" that got $158.00 for a mask like that we pulled out of our attic or a box in the garage. I wouldn't want to be messed up over that for the rest of my life. 

Sure, I think the dealer is a realer loser for what he did in the first place.

I do believe it was dishonest and unfair all the way. But I have to wonder who has the greedy bug more now?  I wonder why the couple want's more than $315,000 and now that isn't enough? Who is sicker than who? This will eat the old people to death. Weird but I hope they come to their senses.

Yes, they got ripped off but $315,000 should make anyone happy. Problem is they now are jealous the dealer is still getting more than they. Money changes everything.

I am glad I won't win that current Billion dollar plus Power Ball lottery that I don't play either. I wouldn't have a real friend in the world if I won that, and I'd probably be terribly unhappy and dead in a year.

There must be something in my little book titled Aesop’s Fables about this.

Edited by thenickelguy
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6 hours ago, thenickelguy said:

I wonder why the couple want's more than $315,000 and now that isn't enough? Who is sicker than who?

It says this elderly couple's relatives advised against the settlemnt ... Maybe they are hoping for a fat inheritance.

 

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The African mask incident reminds me of a similar incident that occurred¬†in Rochester, NY when I was living there in 2000. The Margaret Woodbury¬†Strong Museum¬†had a large collection of antique dolls & oriental art that was deaccessioned¬†for auction to create¬†The Strong Museum of Play, that is now the largest museum of it's type in the world. They hired¬†Eldred's Auction Gallery, experts in oriental art, from East Dennis, Mass., to appraise the oriental art. The auction house misattributed¬†a rare 18th century porcelain vase as 19th century & placed an estimate of $800-1,200 on it; it sold for $20,000¬†ūü§©. That very same vase was auctioned by Christie's¬†the following year for $1.6 million¬†ūüėģ!¬†A team of local lawyers from Rochester later sued¬†Eldred's Auction Gallery¬†for a large but undisclosed settlement¬†& won their case¬†‚ėļÔłŹ.

https://rbj.net/2003/06/27/museums-vase-is-more-than-its-cracked-up-to-be/

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This very topic was raised last June in a hypothetical discussion on this forum, as to whether an informed buyer is allowed to benefit  in an enormously disproportionate fashion when buying from an uninformed seller.   Although in the previous case, it was the dealer-seller who was less savvy than the collector-buyer.  

 

In this case, if the dealer held himself out as an expert to the naive older couple, but was not, he lied about his expertise.  Or, if as an expert he recognized the mask had great value, but minimized the value to the older couple, he lied in that case also.  I don’t know if that deceit would be sufficient to invalidate the contract, but that would be a matter for the court to decide.  

That said, perhaps he only suspected the possibility of the mask being so valuable - that is a bit more murky.  That is almost like buying a lottery ticket from a friend before the winning number is picked.  His offer to share some of the bounty with the sellers seems just and generous to me, and the old couple should have taken the offer and graciously thanked the dealer. 

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The intelligent thing here would have been to seek out legal council who are familiar in this area of law and see the odds of favorability in a law suit. If low, take the offer. If high, the suit is probably worth it. Hopefully this is what the couple did. 

Edited by TheTrachyEnjoyer
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This is a complex case.

The dealer who first bought it for ‚ā¨ 150 made extensive research, even a radiocarbon analysis. He found that this mask had a precise provenance, it was brought from Gabon by a colonial administrator in the early 20th c. The radiocarbon confirmed the wood dates back from the late 19th c. An object like this one draws its value from its context. Without context, it's just worth a few hundreds ‚ā¨uros, but with a precise and dated context, it's a piece of history.
This is not all. This story attracted some Gabonese people's attention on this mask. They too could add more knowledge : it's a white powerful mask used by the secret society of the Ngil, among Fang communities. The activities of the Ngil were forbidden by the French colonial power in the early 20th c., just the same period the colonial administrator acquired this mask and carried it in France. No one knows in which circumstances he acquired it : presented, bought, confiscated?
For many Gabonese people, who value the history and traditions of their countries, this mask belongs to their national heritage. It's not like a mask specially created for the tourists or even the collectors market, this one has been actually impregnated with magic power, according to the rites of the Ngil society. It should be repatriated to Gabon.

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The mask should be repatriated to Cameroon, the historical homeland of the Bantu Fang people.  The Fang only colonized Gabon in the late 19th century, dispossessing the indigenous Pygmy Peoples.  The Fang should not be rewarded for their aggressive colonial aggression by sending the mask to occupied territory.  

(Yes, I am being sarcastic.   A bit.)

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