How I unraveled an African statue hoax
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If there was a ranking of the craziest Internet swindles, this one might just win first place. A week ago, I got a call from a stranger who tried to convince me to buy a collection of small statues in order to save a village in northern Gabon. I smelled a rat, but, intrigued,
By France 24 Observers journalist Alexandre Capron
If there was a ranking of the craziest Internet swindles, this one might just win first place. A week ago, I got a call from a stranger who tried to convince me to buy a collection of small statues in order to save a village in northern Gabon. I smelled a rat, but, intrigued, decided to play along...
On Tuesday, June 24, I got a call from an unknown number with Gabon’s prefix (+241). The man introduced himself as Ferdinand and said that he had “a serious proposition” for me. He asked for my email address, and then sent me the following email several hours later:
Hello mr alexander
[I’m writing to you] after our phone discussion to explain a business deal that I want to manage in partnership with you.
Every 2 years the region of Bitam in the west of Gabon celebrates its well-known traditional festival, known as kidine.
That’s how I met an American who hired me as his guide to help him. In the midst of our visit, he tried to buy a 6-piece collection of ancient artefacts, which unfortunately were not sold to him. The chief as well as several elders refused, saying that the collection had important value to the village and that only the council of elders and the council of queens could make a decision about the sale of this collection.
The American offered them a sum of $850,000. They still refused.
The American became discouraged and then left. Before leaving he gave me all his contact information and asked me to let him know when the collection was put up for sale. From time to time, he’d call me to find out if this collection had been put up for sale.
The scene was set: a village wants to keep the relics of its ancestors and an American wants to buy them.
In the remainder of the email, my correspondent revealed his true purpose in writing to me.
A problem has arisen: the villagers are experiencing enormous difficulties at the moment
- The chief’s illness
- The broken bridge that connects the village with two neighbouring villages
- Also, the queen mother of the chief who is seriously ill
Because of this, the council of elders and queens has decided to sell the collection. This time the American made a pitifully small bid (180,000,000 CFA francs)
So, to summarise, my correspondent’s concern is that the initial proposition of $850,000 (or roughly 622,000 euros) is no longer valid. Now, the American buyer is only offering 185 million CFA francs (roughly equal to 282,000 euros.) So, my correspondent makes a proposition of his own.
So, I thought about it and I need to be able to make a large profit from this sale, because now, the artefacts that the American had offered to pay $850,000 for are going to be sold for nothing (185,000,000 CFA francs)
Considering your authority, I decided to reach out to you. I know it’s not your professional realm [but I’d like to] pass you off as the new owner of the objects in question so that you can bargain with [the American] and get him to make a higher bid than what he was offering to the village.
To further make his case, my correspondent “Ferdinand” even attached photos of the statues to his email. In a later email, he said that the village in question was called Eboro, a tiny hamlet of 150 inhabitants on the border between Gabon and Cameroon.
In short, the swindle went like this: in order to sell the American the statues, I would need to buy them first in order to be the “official owner” of the artefacts. “Ferdinand” asked me to make a down payment before sending me the precious objects. Then, the American would supposedly buy the artefacts from me for a better price.
I was certain that this second transaction would never actually take place and I would be sure to lose the down payment made to “Ferdinand.”
ACT II: Phone call from the “American”Friday, June 4: After a few more calls and emails, my correspondent “Ferdinand” confirmed that the “American buyer” who wanted to buy the statues was going to call to “ask us our price.”
In the middle of the afternoon, I got a call from an unknown number with the US prefix (+001).
On the other end, I heard the voice of the “American”... who spoke English badly with a strong accent. The “American” asked me how much I wanted for the statues.
I played along and said that I would accept his initial offer of $850,000. He accepted my offer without hesitation and said that he’d call me back within in a week.
For a few days, I didn’t hear from “Ferdinand.” Then, on Wednesday, he called me to say that he had travelled to the village and that the village council had held a meeting where they decided to allow me to buy the statues. They would be transported to France in “a few days.” He gave me the telephone number for the village chief but told me that he couldn’t tell me his name because it was holy and “he was forbidden to say it aloud.”
Meanwhile, I reached out to our Gabonese Observers living in Bitam, the nearest town to Eboro, to try and find out more. One of them helped me contact a farmer living in the real village of Eboro. The farmer told me that the real chief of the village had died over a week ago and that the new chief had not yet been chosen. He also told me that there was only one bridge in Eboro and that it was in working order, not broken as “Ferdinand” had claimed in his initial email.
So basically, what “Ferdinand” had told me was completely phoney.
ACT III: Call to the fake chiefI decided to call the fake “village chief” whose number “Ferdinand” had given me. Here is a translated version of our conversation, which was in French:
Alexandre Capron: Hello?
AC: Let me introduce myself. My name is Alexandre Capron. I am calling you on behalf of Ferdinand who gave me your phone number… Are you the chief of the village of Eboro?
Chief: Yes! I am the chief of the village of Eboro. (mumbles) Ferdinand said you would call me so we could make a deal.
AC: Exactly. I am calling you to find out what your council decided.
Chief: Yes, my child. There is no problem. See, we have problems here in the village, so we decided to send you the statues so you could give us the money.
AC: Ok, ok. So you are ok for me to buy the statues?
Chief: Yes, my child, there is no problem. We’ll just need the commission.
AC: Ok, what is your name?
Chief: Mr Ondula.
AC: Ok, well, I was told that the chief of the village was called Andreas Obiong and that he died a week ago.
Chief: (long silence) I am the chief of Ebora village, Mr. Ondula.
AC: Ok, but you aren’t dead? You are sure?
Chief: (Silence followed by mumbling)
AC: Listen, I am going to check with Ferdinand and I’ll call you back later.
Chief: (Silence) Ok, call me back.
AC: Ok, ok. Goodbye.
When I told him that I knew that the village chief had died, the impostor suddenly became uncomfortable. He launched into a host of incomprehensible explanations, all the while calling me “my child.”
A well-known hoax in the art worldSo everything was obviously false. Yet the swindle was quite complicated and relied on a network of well-organised contacts.
Eric Oustric-Pieri is a specialist in African art who lives in the French city of Aix-en-Provence. He told FRANCE 24 that hoaxes based on the resale of African art abound on the internet.
These people find their victims by searching online for people who might be interested in Africa [Editor’s Note: that’s definitely my case, as is made clear in my online resume]. Since I own a gallery of African art, I have been contacted myself. It’s often the same story: an American who is supposed to pay more than you, problems in the village… I know a few people who actually fell for it and made a down payment. The requests for money are neverending: there are packing fees, cleaning fees, customs payments… The swindler puts psychological pressure on their victims by blackmailing them and telling them that [if the sale fails], it will be considered his fault and he will become “a dead man” in his village.
Just as Oustric-Pieri said, on Wednesday, I got a text from “Ferdinand” who told me it was a “matter of life or death” that the deal go through. He included the number of the man pretending to be the chief. Here’s a translation of his text, which was in French.
I made a commitment to the village, please negotiate well with the American or I am dead to the village. Thank you
Here’s is an excerpt of the five-minute conversation that I had with him on Wednesday afternoon (in French).
In short, “Ferdinand” wouldn’t drop the act. He tried to make me feel guilty. But as I quizzed him, cracks were beginning to show. He mistakenly called me “Mr. David” three minutes into the conversation (at 2:50). He even got mixed up about his own country, saying that Eboro was a village situated on the border between Cameroon and Guinea (I’m guessing he meant Equatorial Guinea; you can hear that slip-up at 3:07). After this first call with Ferdinand, I was called at regular intervals throughout the afternoon by the “American,” by “Ferdinand” and by the “village chief.”
The story finally came to a close this morning with a final text from “Ferdinand” (translated from French below):
The chief just called me to say that you said he’s a liar. You’re destroying our trust. If you don’t believe me, well then we can drop the deal
This is not the first time the Observers have dealt with swindlers. In December 2012, we unearthed another hoax when we unmasked an imposter posing as one of our own journalists.