Auction of Hopi sacred masks allowed by French court | News | DW | 12.04.2013
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Auction of Hopi sacred masks allowed by French court

A judge in Paris has rejected an injunction against the sale of dozens of sacred objects from the Native American Hopi tribe. The US ambassador and the actor Robert Redford had called for the auction to be canceled.

A detail of at antique tribal mask, Tumas Crow Mother, circa 1880, revered as a sacred ritual artifact by a Native American tribe in Arizona is displayed at an auction house in Paris April 11, 2013. The Hopi Tribe, living in a dozen scattered villages on a northeastern Arizona reservation, wrote to auctioneer Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou last month asking it to cancel its planned sale of 70 objects including the sacred Katsinam masks, and asked for their return. The Hopi, some of whose 18,000 members continue to follow a traditional way of life farming on three isolated mesas, believe the bright, mostly fabric masks are imbued with the spirits of divine messengers, and they want them returned. REUTERS/John Schults (FRANCE - Tags: SOCIETY)

Antike Stammesmaske aus Arizona Auktion in Paris

The sale took place just hours after the court's decision, with auctioneers offering 70 brilliantly-colored masks and headdresses, made of wood, leather, horse hair and feathers. The Neret-Minet auction house catalog had placed reserves - minimum requirements in order to sell - of between $2,000 (1,530 euros) and $32,000 on the items.

The Hopi tribe, made up of around 18,000 Native Americans from the US state of Arizona, had asked for the artifacts to be returned to them, saying they were blessed with divine spirits. The plea had high profile support from the likes of actor Robert Redford and US Ambassador Charles Rivkin, as well as two Arizona museums.

But the Neret-Minet auction house argued the items were acquired legally by a French collector over a period of 30 years when they lived in the United States. The sellers said blocking the sale could force all French museums to empty their collections of existing Hopi items.

The objects went on display for the first time earlier this week. Dating back to the late 19th century and early 20th century, they are thought to have been taken from a reservation in the 1930s and 1940s.

In its ruling, the court said that while the Hopis place "sacred value" on the masks, "clearly they cannot be assimilated to human bodies or elements of bodies of humans who exist or existed." Had this direct human link existed, the judge said, French law would have banned the masks' sale. The Hopi tribe is believed to feed and nurture the masks as if they were the living dead.

Antike Stammesmaske aus Arizona Auktion in Paris

The Hopi tribe had asked for the masks to be returned.

"The mere fact that these objects can be qualified as religious...does not suffice to confer on them the character of property the sale of which would be manifestly illegal," said Judge Magali Bouvier. The judge said in her ruling she did not consider that the act of selling the masks would put them into imminent danger of either damage or illicit usage, conditions that would have made the transaction illegal.

The decision was welcomed by the auction house, which said its goal had been to make the Hopi culture accessible to as many people as possible, in a legal way. Advocates for the tribe expressed dismay.

"This decision is very disappointing since the masks will be sold and dispersed," said a French lawyer for the tribe, Pierre Servan-Schreiber. "The Hopi tribe will be extremely saddened by the decision, especially since the judgment recognizes that these masks have a sacred value."

It has been illegal to sell Native American artifacts in the United States since 1990, which has allowed the Hopi tribe to recover items from American museums. However, the law does not extend to sales overseas.

jr/msh (AFP, AP)