Hopi masks auctioned in Paris amid outrage and legal objections

This post has been corrected. See below for details.

The gavel came down on 70 sacred Hopi Indian masks at the Drouot auction house in Paris on Friday, generating $1.2 million for the owners and auctioneers – and anger and emotional cries from protesters who said it was a sacrilege that violated tribal rights and the Hopi religion.

The Associated Press reported that the auction proceeded after a French court rejected requests from the Hopi tribe and U.S. government to stop the sale; in its ruling, the court said that U.S. laws governing the sale of Native American religious objects are not applicable in France.


The Associated Press reported that after the most valuable piece was sold -- a “Mother Crow” mask dating from about 1880 that fetched $209,000 –a woman protester shouted, “this is not merchandise, these are sacred beings!” and was led from the room in tears.

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Jo Beranger, a 52-year-old French filmmaker, yelled as auctioneers showed a 1970s image of a now-dead Hopi leader holding a mask, and told the AP that it was “a scandal” and “shameful” that his image had been used; guards escorted her out of the hall.

Meanwhile, auctioneer Gilles Neret-Minet likened one mask to a clown’s face, and said another had eyes that reminded him of the diamond-shaped logo of the French car-maker, Renault. “I must remind people that these masks are for personal use only,” he told prospective bidders. “If they are shown in public, they will be confiscated by the Indians.”

Outside, about a dozen French protesters gathered, one waving the flag of the American Indian Movement, whose 1968 founding helped usher in a new era of assertiveness by Native Americans over their social, political and legal rights.

The international rule of thumb for sales of antiquities and other cultural artifacts is a UNESCO convention adopted in November 1970 to discourage looting; auction houses and museums have become reluctant to sell or acquire artifacts when there’s evidence that they left their homelands or native grounds after that date. The Hopi masks sold in Paris dated from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and were believed to have been taken from a northern Arizona reservation in the 1930s and 1940s.

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Last month, an auction of pre-Columbian antiquities from Latin America went forward at Sotheby’s in Paris, over the objections of Mexico, Guatemala, Costa Rica and Peru. The pieces from the private Barbier-Mueller collection in Switzerland had been amassed before the UNESCO convention was adopted.

W. Richard West, the new president of L.A.’s Autry National Center of the American West – and himself a member of the Cheyenne tribe and former director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian – said in an interview Friday that the Paris auction of Hopi masks was “unfortunate.”

But, he added, it technically would be legal even in the United States, because the masks were privately owned and sold. He said the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which restricts ownership of human remains, funerary and religious objects and some other cultural artifacts, applies to institutions that receive federal funding.

In practice, however, West said, the 1990 law has helped raise awareness to the point where “I think Sotheby’s, Christie’s and other auction houses [in America] are perhaps – how shall I put it delicately – somewhat more sensitive and diplomatic” when it comes to providing a marketplace for Native American artifacts.

The Autry currently has an exhibition of Hopi dolls known as Katsinam that embody spirits who convey blessings and instruction and are part of the tribe’s ceremonial practices. West said that while some Hopi ceremonial objects are considered too sacred to be shown publicly, the dolls in the “Katsina in Hopi Life” exhibition don’t carry that level of sensitivity.

The key in such exhibitions, he said, is “consulting with the native communities” whose traditions are being represented. The current show, running through December 1 and including more than 180 dolls from the Autry’s Southwest Museum collection, is curated by two Hopi tribe members, Susan Secakuku and the late Hartman Lomawaima.

[For the record, April 12, 3 p.m.: A previous version of this post had an incorrect closing date for the “Katsina in Hopi Life” exhibition at the Autry Museum.]


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