Adapted from guardian.co.uk, Friday 12 April 2013 17.23 BST
Photograph: John Schults/Reuters
The Hopi masks displayed at the Drouot auction house in Paris before the sale.
The Drouot auction house has gone ahead with a contested sale of dozens of Native American tribal masks after winning a court ruling, despite appeals for a delay by the Hopi tribe, its supporters and the US government. Shortly after the court announced its decision, auctioneers began selling dozens of brilliantly coloured masks made of wood, leather, horsehair and feathers at the Drouot auction house on Friday. The auctioneer argued that blocking the sale would have tremendous implications and potentially force French museums to empty their collections. Protesters repeatedly disrupted the sales.
The Hopi want the masks returned, insisting they have a special status and are more than art: they represent their dead ancestors’ spirits. The Hopi, a tribe whose territory is surrounded by Arizona, nurture the masks as if they are the living dead. The 70 objects date from the late 19th century and early 20th century, and are thought to have been taken from a northern Arizona reservation in the 1930s and 1940s.
In its ruling, the court noted that the Hopi 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. The court also alluded to a 1978 US law, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and wrote “no provisions banning the sale outside the United States of objects used in religious ceremonies or susceptible to be is applicable in France”.
The tribe’s French lawyer, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, said,
”This decision is very disappointing, since the masks will be sold and dispersed. The Hopi tribe will be extremely saddened by the decision, especially since the judgment recognises that these masks have a sacred value. The judge considers that the imminent damage (to the masks) is not sufficiently strong.”
Jean-Patrick Razon, France director for Survival International, an advocacy group that supports tribal peoples, also expressed disappointment,
”The Hopi people have been pillaged throughout their history. We despoiled their land, we killed them, we violated their souls and it continues. Now, their ritual objects are being put up for auction.”
The US ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, tweeted:
“I am saddened to learn that Hopi sacred cultural objects are being put up for auction today in Paris.”
On Thursday, he sent a letter to the French government and the auction house asking for a delay to allow better consideration of the tribe’s concerns. Hollywood star Redford joined the effort, writing a letter calling the sales a “sacrilege” – even a “criminal gesture”.
Auctioneer Gilles Neret-Minet said,
”I am also very concerned about the Hopi’s sadness, but you cannot break property law. These are in (private) collections in Europe: they are no longer sacred. When objects are in private collections, even in the United States, they are desacralised.”
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