A Black Friday for the Hopi People.

“The Hopi people have been pillaged throughout their history. We stole their land, we killed them, we violated their souls and it continues. Now, their ritual objects are being put up for auction.” Jean-Patrick Razon, director of Survival International, Paris, April 2013.

Part of a unique collection of Hopi Katsina that ceased to exist after April 13, 2013, when it was broken up and sold at a Paris auction house, an act of cultural vandalism which may have far reaching repercussions.

On Friday, April 12 2013, the Néret-Minet, Tessier & Sarrou auction house in Paris sold a collection of 70 Native American masks dating between 1880 and 1940, of which around 65 were Hopi spirit Katsina dance masks. The masks themselves are made of wood, leather, fabric and horn and each channels an individual spirit ancestor. Some are frightening and some extremely beautiful, but all are impressive and many of the oldest glow with  pigments as fresh as they day they were applied, an indication of the care with which they were preserved. These are the masks that inspire the small Kachina dolls beloved by collectors.

The cultural significance of the objects is not seriously in doubt. They are worshipped as ancestors, treasured as heirlooms, and belonged collectively to the tribe as a whole so it was, in Hopi terms, not legally possible to sell them to a third party and there is thus a question mark as to whether or not the vendor, a Frenchman who was a long time US resident and purchased them in the States, knowingly or unknowingly acquired stolen property

It was a memorable auction for many reasons. All the masks came from one collection, and all are thought to have been collected in one reservation in northern Arizona in the 1930s and 1940s. It was one the world’s most significant collections of Hopi Katsina masks in private hands. The auction was preceded by a court case brought on behalf of the Hopi  against the auction house by Survival International, the organisation for indigenous rights, who were supported by two Arizona museums and the American Government.

The Hopi asked the court to delay the sale until clear title to the masks by the vendor could be confirmed, but requests from the Hopi for information on the provenance of the collection were ignored in spite of the urging of the US Ambassador to France for a delay. The judge decided in favour of the auction house and the sale went ahead, although it was repeatedly interrupted by protesters, who also gathered outside the building.

The big question, which has still to still be answered, is whether or not the auction should have gone ahead – in spite of the judge’s decision. And whether or not the new owners will be forced to return the masks  or challenged if they ever try to sell them. More than one commentator has suggested a parallel with the looting of artworks by the Nazis, which were eventually returned to their rightful owners.

It has also been pointed out that it is common practice in the auction world to delay or cancel an auction when the vendor’s legal provenance to the objects on offer is challenged – as much to protect the titles of new owners as the reputation of the auction house. At least one recognised expert on stolen art has suggested that it might have been wiser and safer to delay the sale until the vendor’s title was proven.

There certainly appear to be legal grounds for a future challenge. Dr. C. Timothy McKeown, a Legal Anthropologist, points out that while there is no legal agreement between the USA and France relating to the reparation Native American cultural objects, but on th eother hand, the collection was acquired in the USA by the vendor, and may have been acquired illegally under US law at the time the masks were purchased. He also pointed to an 1834 Federal law that remains force and states that in disputes over the right of property involving an Indian and a non-Indian, “the burden of proof rests on the non-Indian whenever the Indian makes out a presumption of title in himself from the fact of previous possession or ownership”. *

There was a lot of defensive bluster in the room. One American collector who purchased three of the masks stated that the Hopi “deserved” to lose them because they had not looked after them properly and there seemed to be little understanding among the vendors of their true cultural significance tha these were not just any Native American masks. They were a specific category of mask from a specific tribe and location, which under tribal law could never be sold.

The auctioneer rebutted the Hopi claims that the masks were significant ritual objects and not artworks on the grounds that his two French experts, one of them Eric Geneste who co-authored a book on Kachina dolls, had informed him that the masks had no ritual significance except for the moment they were being danced. (Apparently, if the Hopi have any further questions about their own culture, they only have to ask these two French experts, and it will be explained to them).

The  fact that such a unique and irreplaceable collection was broken up is a tragedy in itself and one of the most depressing things about this sale is the fact that it only raised $1.2 million – a paltry price for a cultural collection that was irreplaceable and of immense significance not only to the Hopi people, but to the nation as a whole.

Why was the Museum of the American Indian in Washington or one of the two Arizona museums who protested the sale not provided with Federal or State funds to bid for the collection? Even more surprising, give the prevalence of private benevolence in the States, was the absence of a wealthy champion – a Bill Gates or Warren Buffet who could have generously gifted this bargain-priced collection to the Hopi and the nation.

As things stand, only one mask, purchased by French lawyer Quentin de Margerie who bought it with the express intention of donating it to the Hopi people, will go back to the tribe. The other successful bidders should bear in mind that any reputable auction house is likely to steer well clear of controversy and a possible legal challenge if the new owners attempt put them on the market again.

*Read Dr. McKeown’s expert opinion in full at  http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/2013/04/09/you-cant-convey-what-you-dont-have

See tribal art catalog at www.tribalartbrokers.net/products.asp  

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