Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Hopi Mask Auction Raises Questions of Ownership

"I am saddened to learn that #Hopi sacred cultural objects are being put up for auction today in Paris." 

Since the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) passed in 1990, American institutions receiving federal funding have returned hundreds of thousands of cultural items to their tribal owners. Often, specific repatriation offices and individuals are staffed to facilitate the safe return of objects (and human remains) to their rightful owners. It seems, however, that foreign nations fear similar processes of repatriation.

65 of 70 Hopi masks grossed 931,000 Euros ($1.2 million) during last Friday’s controversial auction in Paris. Five went unpurchased. Hopi members expressed that these items had been stolen from Hopi altars or confiscated by missionaries at the Arizona reservation during the 1930s and 1940s. Hopi members and their allies attempted to raise awareness about the sale of their sacred ritual objects – Katsinam (known as “friends”). These objects have a spiritual connection to the ancestors of today’s 18,000 Hopi peoples and are said to embody the spirits themselves. The French, however, were unsympathetic to requests for return. It was reported that the auction house suggested that the Hopi buy back the objects for themselves, since they believe that “art” in private collections cannot be considered sacred. Only one of the objects (selling for $4,900) was purchased with the intent to repatriate.

A judge’s ruling allowed the auction to proceed as planned, though protestors disrupted the sale numerous times. How should we re-evaluate old debates over art ownership (the Elgin marbles, for example)? Are sacred objects more than just “art?” Are property claims more valuable than respect?

Hopi Bo Lomahquahu, center, with other protesters outside the auction on Friday. Photo by Michel Euler/Associated Press

More information can be found:

And an informative article published before the auction:

I have chosen not to display images of the masks on this blog, but the pieces can be viewed at the Drouot’s auction house, NĂ©ret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou:

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