The April 2013 auction of sacred Native American ceremonial items by the auction house Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou* in Paris proceeded only after legal action and vocal international protests from indigenous peoples, anthropologists, museologists, and even the USA government. Ultimately, the French courts upheld the property right of artifact collectors and the auction house over the rights of the Hopi and other indigenous peoples to protect their collective cultural patrimony.
According to the 12 April 2013, New York Times, the auctioneer told assembled bidders that ‘in France you cannot just up and seize the property of a person that is lawfully his,’ meaning, of course, the rights of wealthy collectors trump those of indigenous cultures.
Not surprisingly, the auction event and outcome were topics that surfaced in several discussions during the recent American Anthropological Association meeting in Chicago. A series of commentaries in response to the auction are also featured in the Fall 2013 issue [36(2)] of Museum Anthropology, journal of the Council on Museum Anthropology.
Leading those commentaries is the press release from the Hopi Tribe, which states the issues succinctly and should be read in its entirety:
Kykotsmovi, Ariz.-The Hopi Tribe is vehemently opposed to the auction of Hopi sacred objects at the upcoming Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction scheduled for April 12 in France. The tribe is requesting that the sacred objects be returned to the Hopi Tribe immediately.
“The Hopi Tribe must protect the cultural beliefs that we have used for centuries and still continue to use today,” said Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy N. Shingoitewa. “We think these sacred objects were stolen from the Hopi Tribe and should be returned to the proper custodians and caretakers, the Kachina chiefs, within their respective Hopi villages.”
The sacred objects in question have high religious value to the Hopi Tribe dating back centuries. Part of the Hopi Tribe’s cultural history and upbringing states that showing the images of these sacred objects is highly offensive to the Hopi Tribe. In addition, these items should be referred to only as sacred objects; incorrectly labeling them and showing the images is very disrespectful to the entire American Indian community and the Hopi Tribe.
“The majority of the sacred objects that are being sold date back to the 1930s,” said Leigh Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Tribe’s Cultural Preservation Office. “They were likely illegally obtained by a French citizen visiting our reservation. The mere fact that a price tag has been placed upon such culturally significant and religious items is beyond offensive. They do not have a market value. Period.”
“The sacred objects that are being put up for auction belong to the entire Hopi Tribe, they have cultural patrimony meaning there is a tribal and cultural right, they have never belonged to a single person,” said Kuwanwisiwma. “Because these objects do not belong to a single person, they have no monetary value and cannot be sold.”
For more information on the Hopi Tribe, visit www.hopi-nsn.gov.
The Hopi Tribe argues that the ceremonial objects put on auction are ipso facto illegally in France and should be returned to their respective villages.
Writing in comment on the auction, Chip Colwell-Chanthaphonh [Denver Museum of Nature & Science] compares three different international claims to cultural property made in 2013 that raise striking questions about repatriation and the burden of proof.
He notes that the descendants of Paul Rosenberg, an art dealer, argued that in 1941 the German NAZI government stole a Matisse painting that is now displayed in the Henie-Onstad Kunstsenter in Baerum, Norway. Rosenberg’s heirs claim ownership and demand return of the painting. A second example is the effort by the Cambodian government to reclaim two statues from the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and one from Sotheby’s that were looted sometime between 1970 and 1975. His third example is the effort by the Hopi Tribe to reclaim its lost cerimonial items.
Colwell-Chanthaphonh observes trenchantly that “Modern Western law and Western thought are predicated on the idea of concrete proof. While obviously useful in most cases, it sometimes prejudices courts against Native Americans. Many sacred objects are meant to be esoteric and private, not for public consumption or regular documentation. To provide the kinds of proof needed by a court is a violation in itself. … Really, what kind of proof would the court have accepted about the existence of ancestral spirits?” (Colwell-Chanthaphonh 2013, 109).
He concludes that the Rosenberg family will likely get their stolen paintings, and the citizens of Cambodia will get their stolen statues, but the Hopi and Zuni people – because their history and culture do not meet Western standards of proof – will not see the return of their stolen katsina and kokko friends.
In her commentary, Miranda Belarde-Lewis [University of Washington] describes her additional outrage of seeing photographs of kokko (the Zuni term for katsina) friends made by the gallery and reproduced for the auction and then again in the coverage of the auction in the press.
Belarde-Lewis expresses shock at seeing the objects displayed as art, and the violation of Pueblo law prohibiting the photography of kokko friends and all associated ceremonial activity. She asks “does a ceremonial item cease being sacred once it is removed from its home community? Of course not” (Belarde-Lewis 2013, 104). She writes that it is damaging to Pueblo “ways of living, being, and knowing, not only when kokko friends are for sale but also when they are depicted as art and when they are represented in images that strip the kokko friends from their context” (ibid).
Other commentaries are provided by Robert G. Breunig [Museum of Northern Arizona], Tony R. Chavarria [Museum of Indian Arts & Culture], Jim Enote [A:Shiwi A:Wan Museum and Heritage Center], Cécile R. Ganteaume [National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution], Steven C. Moore [Native American Rights Fund], Lydia Knowles [Denver Museum of Nature & Science], Bruce Bernstein [Continuous Pathways Foundation, Pueblo of Pojoaque].
Belarde-Lewis, M. 2013. No Photography Allowed: Problematic Photographs of Sacred Objects. Museum Anthropology 36(2): 104.
Colwell-Chanthaphonh, C. 2013. Repatriation and Burdens of Proof. Museum Anthropology 36(2): 108-109.
Mashberg, T. 2013. Auction of Hopi Masks Proceeds After Judge’s Ruling. New York Times. 12 April. Accessed at http://artsbeat.blogs.nytimes.com/2013/04/12/french-judge-rules-that-auction-of-hopi-masks-can-proceed/?_r=0
Indian Country Today.com entires about auction. http://indiancountrytodaymedianetwork.com/tags/neret-minet-tessier-sarrou
* According to their website, Tessier & Sarrou auction house was “founded in 1691 under the reign of King Louis XIV. It is specialized in sales of furniture and objets d’art, ancient and modern paintings, jewelry, Chinese archeology and arts of Asia, comics, perfumery, silverware, antique textiles, archives and manuscripts, and objects of marine , folk art, toys and dolls.”