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70 Native American Masks To Go To Auction Friday

AAA member, C. Timothy McKeown wrote an article yesterday for Indian Country Today. The article You Can’t Convey What You Don’t Have discusses yet another auction of significant artifacts to be held at the end of this week in Paris, France. Below is an excerpt:

On Friday, April 12, Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou in Paris is scheduled to auction 70 Native American masks dating between 1880 and 1940. The auction catalogue describes each mask, provides a photograph, details the materials used in its construction, and identifies the tribe that used the mask in its religious ceremonies. There are one or more masks from Acoma, Jemez, Zuni and Navajo, but the majority are from Hopi. The proposed sale has unleashed a global discussion on the propriety of the trade in communally owned cultural items and the need for transparency in provenance documentation.

We know little about the collector for whose benefit the auction will be conducted, identified in the catalogue only by the initials “L.S.” and described as “a connoisseur with peerless taste” who lived and collected in the US for 30 years. The French press describes him as a Frenchman who worked in the American film industry and occasionally stayed with the tribe. Requests from the Hopi Tribe for information on the provenance of the collection have been ignored, and last Thursday the US Embassy in Paris reportedly weighed in with an email asking the auction house to respond to the Hopi request. In a statement to the press, an unnamed representative of the auction house claimed that the collector “legally bought the items in the United States at sales and auctions.” Auctioneer Gilles Néret-Minet has dismissed Hopi claims because “they rely on an article of the Hopi constitution which is not recognized in France because it is not a State.”

Monsieur Néret-Minet might be interested in knowing that a number of US Federal laws may also be implicated in the proposed sale. Taking the auction house representative’s statement that the items were “legally” bought in the US on its face, we can assume that none of the masks – many of which have been identified by the Hopi Tribe as objects of ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the tribe and which could not be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual – were obtained after 1990 from tribal lands or from a museum receiving Federal funds. Section 4 of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) made the sale, purchase, use for profit, or transport for sale or profit of any such cultural items a criminal offense. To date, 13 individuals have been convicted of trafficking items similar to those being offered at the Paris auction. Most were fined and the cultural items confiscated and repatriated. Several were also imprisoned. The list of convicted criminals includes mostly tribal members, intermediaries, and dealers in the American Southwest. Missing are the collectors who fuel the market, though several have stepped forward, including one reportedly connected to the Hollywood community, to aid the law enforcement and avoid prosecution themselves.

Click here to read McKeown’s entire article.

Readers may recall a letter sent by AAA President Leith Mullings last month about the Barbier-Mueller Collection of pre-Colombian art that was auctioned by Sotheby’s Paris. What do you think it is about Paris to be a hub for such auctions?

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