A carved mask from Central Africa, dating from the 19th century, was sold in France for 4.2 million euros on Saturday, despite Gabonese protesters in the auction house calling for the item's "restitution".
The rare wooden "Ngil" mask, used in ceremonies by the Fang ethnic people of Gabon, smashed its estimate of 300,000-400,000 euros at the auction in the southern French city of Montpellier.
This exceptional piece was discovered in an attic where it had been sleeping for a century by the descendants of French colonial governor René-Victor Edward Maurice Fournier. Fournier, who was posted in turn to Dakar and the Middle Congo, is said to have collected it around 1917 during a tour of Gabon.
With its large domed forehead, almond-shaped eyes, long nose and beard made of raffia fibres, this 55 cm high mask, made of cheese wood, represents a human figure. It is believed to date from the 19th century.
This piece belonged, according to Jean-Christophe Giuseppi, the auctioneer in charge of the sale, "to the secret society of the Ngil, 'vigilantes' who roamed the villages to flush out troublemakers, among whom were individuals suspected of witchcraft."