PARIS (AP) – In chaotic auction repeatedly interrupted by protests, dozens of Native American tribal masks were sold Friday after a French court ignored the objections of the Hopi tribe and the U.S. government.
The total tally was 931,000 euros ($1.2 million), with the most expensive, the “Mother Crow,” selling for 160,000 euros ($209,000)—more than three times the presale estimate.
Of the 70 masks up for sale, one was bought by an association to give back to the Hopis, the Drouot auction house said.
Advocates for the Hopi tribe had argued in court the masks have special status and are not art—they represent their dead ancestors’ spirits. The Hopis, a Native American tribe whose territory is surrounded by Arizona, nurture the masks as if they are the living dead.
But the auctioneer insisted any move to block the sale could have broad repercussions for the art market in general and potentially force French museums to empty their collections of indigenous works.
The Katsinam, or “friends,” masks made up nearly all of the 70 lots that went on display at the auction house, offering a rare public glimpse of such works in Europe. The masks are surreal faces made from wood, leather, horsehair and feathers, and painted in vivid pigments of red, blue, yellow and orange.
They date to the late 19th century and early 20th century, and are thought to have been taken from a reservation in northern Arizona in the 1930s and 1940s.
Hopi representatives contend the items were stolen at some point, and wanted the auction house to prove otherwise.
As the auction got underway two and a half hours after the court ruling, Jo Beranger, a 52-year-old French filmmaker, yelled as auctioneers showed a 1970s image of a Hopi leader in tribal beads and holding a mask.
Beranger, told The Associated Press that the Hopi leader had since died, and it was “a scandal” and “shameful” that he was shown. Security guards escorted her out of the auction hall.
About a dozen protesters from a French group that sides with the Native Americans gathered outside—one waving the flag of the American Indian Movement.
In Arizona, Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa said that the judge’s decision to let the sale go on was disappointing but not unexpected.
“It’s a whole new legal field that many tribes have not truly experienced,” he said. “So I think the Native American tribes in the United States are going to have to start looking at this area of being able to try to protect our cultural areas as well as sacred sites.”
Shingoitewa said the tribe did not attempt to bid on the objects Friday. He said he was saddened to know that many people will treat the objects as art when they have deep religious significance to the tribe and are never up for display on the reservation.
“Maybe in their hearts, they may feel that they can return them back to the place they started and the home they had,” he said. “That would be my plea.”
After the “Mother Crow” mask dating from about 1880 was sold, a protester shouted “this is not merchandise, these are sacred beings!” before being pushed out of the room by a security guard and breaking into tears.
Auctioneer Gilles Neret-Minet pressed on. He likened one mask to a clown’s face, and said the eyes of another resembled the diamond-shaped logo of French carmaker Renault. He jokingly told guests the sale “is the deal of the day.”
“I must remind people that these masks are for personal use only. If they are shown in public, they will be confiscated by the Indians, you know, they are here,” he said with a smile.
Monroe Warshaw, an art collector from New York, who bought two masks for around 28,000 euros ($36,500) euros, said he didn’t believe the masks had been stolen from the Hopis and that the person who acquired them should be thanked, not criticized, for preserving them.
“How did they steal them? Did some antique dealer go into their house at night and steal them?” he said, as the auction was still in progress.
He added that he will “probably not” ever give them back to the Hopis as “they didn’t care for them in the first place—now they want them because they have a value.”
After the noon ruling by the judge to allow the auction, Neret-Minet had stressed he remained genuinely “concerned about the Hopi’s sadness … and would not gloat.”
He said property law nonetheless needed to be respected: “When objects are in private collections, even in the United States, they are desacralized.”
In its ruling, the court noted the Hopis ascribe “sacred value” to the masks but “clearly they cannot be assimilated to human bodies or elements of bodies of humans who exist or existed”—the sale of which would be banned in France.
Jean-Patrick Razon, France director for Survival International, an advocacy group that supports tribal peoples, said he shared the Hopis’ disappointment.
“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,” Razon said.
The U.S. Ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, tweeted in French, “I am saddened to learn that Hopi sacred cultural objects are being put up for auction today in Paris.”
Neret-Minet said the auction house has received “serious threats” ahead of the auction, and declined to comment further other than to say: “But remember this is an auction open to everyone. If anyone wants to come and buy them, they can.”
The Associated Press is not transmitting images of the objects because the Hopi have long kept the items out of public view and consider it sacrilegious for any images of the objects to appear.
Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP
Associated Press writers Jamey Keaten in Paris and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Ariz., contributed to this report.
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