A French court has ruled to allow an auction of dozens of Native American tribal masks opposed by the Hopi tribe and its supporters including actor Robert Redford, and despite the US government’s plea for the sale to be delayed.
The potentially landmark decision with transatlantic repercussions means the sale can go ahead across Paris at Drouot auction house this afternoon.
The auctioneer argued that blocking the sale would have tremendous implications and potentially force French museums to empty their collections. Hopi Indians from the US state of Arizona insist the masks were stolen spiritual vessels and want them back.
“This decision is very disappointing since the masks will be sold and dispersed,” said the tribe’s French lawyer, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, outside the courtroom.
“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.”
The Hopis’ lawyers have filed a request with the Council of Sales, the French auction market authority, to suspend the sale, he added.
Yesterday, the US ambassador to France sent a letter to the French government and the auction house asking for a delay to the sale to better consider the tribe’s concerns.
Gilles Neret-Minet, of the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction house behind the auction, said he would stop short of any triumphalism over the ruling, “but I’m happy that French law was respected”.
“I am also very concerned about the Hopis’ sadness, but you cannot break property law,” he said. “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.”
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 70 objects, mainly Hopi, went on display at Druout for the first time as the court battle kicked off yesterday, offering a rare public glimpse of such works in Europe. They date to 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. The most expensive single mask is estimated to be worth at least €50,000.
The masks are undoubtedly striking – surreal faces made from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers – and painted in vivid pigments of red, blue, yellow and orange. Hopi representatives contend the items were stolen at some point, and wanted the auction house to prove otherwise. They say the masks have a special status and are more than art, representing their dead ancestors’ spirits. Hopis feed and nurture the masks as if they are the living dead.
The Hopi have long kept the items out of public view and consider it sacrilegious for any images of the objects to appear.