Hopi artifact auction sparks international controversy

A Parisian auctioneer plans to sell 70 of the sacred Native American objects for an estimated $1 million, prompting calls for their return.

By Bruce Kennedy Apr 4, 2013 3:47PM

Gavel on a table (copyright Lee Thompson/Getty Images)Art and money often go hand-in-hand, especially in the high-priced realm of auction houses. But that marriage of art and commerce can get controversial when the artwork in question is of a religious nature -- and the faith involved takes issue with what it considers its sacred, priceless objects being put up for sale.

That's the international scenario unfolding as the Hopis of Arizona and their supporters call on the U.S. government to stop a planned auction in Paris next week. Reports say the auction of 70 Hopi artifacts at the Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction house, one of the largest-ever auctions of its kind, could bring in up to $1 million.

Hopis view the objects known as katsinas, or “friends,” as being imbued with living, divine spirits -- for use in many of their rituals and ceremonies.

“The friends are loved, cared for and ceremonially fed,” Robert Breunig, director of the Museum of Northern Arizona, wrote in a letter to Néret-Minet that was posted on the museum's Facebook page.

”They are a connection between the human world and the spirits of all living things and the ancestors," he adds. "To be displayed disembodied in your catalogue and on the Internet is sacrilegious and offensive.”

Breunig adds the proposed sale of “these katsina friends, and the international exposure of them, is causing outrage, sadness and stress among members of the affected tribes.” He also calls on Néret-Minet to cancel the auction and return the artifacts to the Hopis.

According to The New York Times, the Hopis are getting advice from the U.S. State Department and the Department of the Interior.

But the newspaper notes that, while the federal government has laws in place to stop the illegal sale of Native American artifacts at home -- and it often helps other governments repatriate important antiques, relics and other objects from the United States to their native countries -- there are no similar agreements about retrieving American artifacts overseas.

"Right now there just aren't any prohibitions against this kind of large foreign sale," Jack Trope, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, told The Times. "The leverage for international repatriation just isn't there."

The Heard Museum in Phoenix, which also backs the Hopi effort to recover the artifacts, is reportedly looking at the United Nation's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People as a legal tool against the auction. According to The Associated Press, France was one of the first countries to sign that document (.pdf file) -- which, among other things, declares that the signatory countries will help with “the access and/or repatriation of ceremonial objects and human remains in their possession through fair, transparent and effective mechanisms.”

In the meantime, the Hopis say they will not bid on the objects at the Paris auction.

"Culturally we made it clear that there's no price tag on our ceremonial and religious objects," Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the tribe's cultural preservation office, tells the AP. "That's pretty much out of the question."

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