PARIS — A French auction house that ignored a plea by the U.S. Embassy to delay an auction of sacred Hopi masks sold them briskly Monday along with other contested Native American artifacts for $1.6 million.
As protesters stood outside the Drouot auction house with banners reading “Sacred Masks, Sacrilegious Sale,” some 25 vividly colored kachina masks went under the hammer inside.
Although a judge ruled last week that the sale of the artifacts is legal in France, the American Indian Hopi tribe says the artifacts represent their ancestors’ spirits and cannot be sold as merchandise.
Objects sold quickly, including the sacred “Crow Mother,” a menacing Hopi mask with billowing black plumes that was bought at nearly twice its expected value at $171,000.
“This is the event of the year. It’s right here, right now. This is the American Indian sale of 2013,” auctioneer Eric Deneste said lightheartedly. His tone, and the almost comical corncobs scattered for decoration around the masks, were in contrast to the serious presence of security guards positioned around the room in case of disruption.
The katsinam masks look like surreal faces made from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers and are painted in vivid pigments of red, blue, yellow and orange. Unlike commercial art, the Hopis argue, these objects are akin to tombs and represent their ancestors’ spirits, nurtured and fed as if they are the living dead.
The U.S. Embassy requested the auction delay on behalf of the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes, to allow them time to come to France and identify the artifacts and investigate whether they have a claim to the items under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Both France and the United States are signatories to the treaty.
“No one is saying we should empty museums of their artifacts,” said Pierre Servan-Schreiber, a lawyer who represents the Hopi tribe. “But these objects have a special significance for a people that still exists. When will someone realize that not everything can be sold and bought?”
Servan-Schreiber said he bought one of the Hopi masks to return to the tribe.
Last week, the Hopi tribe took the auction house to court to try to block the sale. The tribe lost, with the judge emphasizing that France does not possess laws to protect indigenous peoples.
Servan-Schreiber told the AP that the San Carlos Apache tribe also wanted to join that lawsuit, to protect its own objects, but it was too late for it to join under French legal procedure.
The Hopi tribe has said it believes the masks, which date to the late 19th and early 20th century, were taken illegally from a northern Arizona reservation in the early 20th century.
After the court ruling, David Killion, the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, co-wrote an open letter to argue the Hopis’ case.
In a similar dispute in April, a Paris court ruled that such sales are legal, and about 70 Hopi masks were sold for about $1.2 million, despite protests and criticism from the U.S. government and actor Robert Redford.