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Navajo-Hopi Observer | Flagstaff, Arizona

home : latest news : regional November 25, 2015

4/16/2013 9:41:00 AM
Hopi sacred objects sold for $1.2 million
French judge allows April 12 auction to go forward at Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou house despite protests from Hopi Tribe and other organizations
Bo Lomahquahu, a 25-year-old Hopi student whose family is from Bacavi on the Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in northeast Arizona, and Jean-Patrick Razon, director of Survival International France, react outside the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction house in Paris after dozens of Hopi sacred objects were sold at auction. Photo/Survival For Tribal Peoples
Bo Lomahquahu, a 25-year-old Hopi student whose family is from Bacavi on the Third Mesa on the Hopi Reservation in northeast Arizona, and Jean-Patrick Razon, director of Survival International France, react outside the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction house in Paris after dozens of Hopi sacred objects were sold at auction. Photo/Survival For Tribal Peoples
Media outside the auction house in Paris. Photo/Survival For Tribal Peoples
Media outside the auction house in Paris. Photo/Survival For Tribal Peoples
Hopi Katsinam Auction in Paris: a conversation with auctioneer Dominique Godreche
On April 12, the Parisian auction house Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou sold 70 Hopi katsinam, commonly referred to as masks, to the highest bidder. This sizable auction of objects the Hopi consider sacred created an international furor, with Hopi and other Natives, as well as museum curators, calling on the auction house to cancel the auction and return the pieces to the Hopi.

Auctioneer Gilles Néret-Minet found himself at the center of the controversy. He has received a stream of angry correspondence, and even threats. He spoke with an Indian Country Today Media Network (ICTMN) reporter on the condition that his words not be changed. ICTMN attempted to keep the responses below as close as possible to Néret-Minet's original French answers.

Does all this buzz about the sale change your plans?

No - because France is a country of rights! All the mail in the world will not change anything. I am answering through my lawyer; and either I get the auction, or I do not. But if not, it would be a reconsideration of the nature of private property in France, which would have a huge impact on this issue. These objects are not "protected" in France, or in Europe. Only in the United States; and particularly in those two states, Arizona and New Mexico, where the Hopi tribes live. Also, those masks are only sacred when used in a dance. They are not sacred afterward. They are put aside, or destroyed. So the Hopi want to claim these objects, and we don't know where they will go - they might just disappear. This is unbelievable! If they can claim these objects now, then African art is over, and the Cluny Museum [of medieval objects, in Paris] would give back all of its pieces to the churches. If we are questioning the principle of "religious art," we should question the entire notion of art. I think this issue should be addressed to the Americans, and that is what the New York Times article says: There is no bi-national agreement of restitution. That's it!

What is your understanding of the tribe's claim regarding their ritual objects?

Well, it is the same as if the Britons here in France would ask for us to return their headdress.

It seems like there is a disagreement between the notion of art, and religious or ritual art?

If you question and revalue "religious art," then we would have to stop selling any religious piece: sculpture, jewelry, painting, architecture, etc., as it includes all of those categories. So I will not cede to pressure, unless it goes through the judicial system. My lawyers told me that I do not have to give back these collections: it would be as if, during an auction at Drouot, your neighbor is opposed to the sale because he feels that it represents a profanation of the church.

We have to remain rational: France is a country of rights; we are not the 51st state of the United States. This collection is totally exceptional. Many museums are interested, as those masks are more than a hundred years old. So stop the aggression!

I have received about 20 mails of protest a day, all similar, with the same presentation. We do not even know who whom to communicate to negotiate. And I do not have the slightest knowledge about these organizations: Are they democratically-elected, do they represent the people - or are they part of a feudal system?

But you must have some indication of origin, globally, regarding these claims?

These claims, with no judicial foundation, come from the tribe, and their friends - like a professor of a university - who protest.

Why are those claims not valid?

On a legal basis, they are not valid. On a personal, emotional, subjective, or religious basis, they might be valid, but I cannot do anything about that. I have a mandate from the seller, in France, who has owned this collection long before NAGPRA was passed. And I sell, that is it! I know everything about how he got it; it is only a part of his collection, as he is a great lover of Native art, and has a huge collection. I did not get it from a flea market seller who was getting rid of stolen goods! I care about Native arts, even if I have not done many sales.

How can you be assured of the origins and authenticity of those pieces, and how do you react to suggestions by some Native experts that those pieces should be vetted by Native-recognized experts?

...Ah, yes! Now they say I am selling fakes! Why such a fuss, then, if I am selling fakes? Andy Warhol too, was accused of having fake masks. That is not a dumb question - but if we knew everything there would be no more polemics, then! (Laugh) Well, we will see them in the Branly museum [France's foremost museum of indigenous art], that is all! People say all kinds of things, and I get threatening letters. Do you think I really like having to hire security? It seems like the Hopi lobbies are stronger than the Africans!

So, all this must be a shock for you?

No, the same thing was going on with the Pierre Bergé auction [of Hopi items]. As soon as it is becomes significant, they try. But there are state-to-state agreements, concerning human remains, like the Maori, in New Zealand; and I would never have taken those, as I understand the point of those agreements. But masks are sacred only when used during a dance! That is what my experts told me: They are a relation between the spirit world and the dancer, and after the dance, it is over. Moreover, some of these masks may be sacred, like the Crow Mother [one of the items on sale], but not all of them are - but they want them all back. Then they are shocked at the money issue: but some Hopis are in jail because they have sold masks that should be returned. And those masks were sold by the Native Americans themselves!

If we follow this logic, then the British museum should return the friezes of the Parthenon, and the Louvre the Italian paintings, and so on.

How do you know those masks are no longer sacred after they are used in a dance?

I have experts [Eric Geneste (cabinet Mickeler Geneste) and the consultant Daniel Dubois], and they are among the best - they know. According to them, as long as these items are active, they are sacred; but afterwards, it is over. The sacredness is like electricity, and afterward they have been unplugged. And my experts make a distinction between the sacred ones, and the common ones. I think the people who asked me for all the masks did not consider that question. They want them all, and there should be a balance.

Is this your first Native American sale?

No, I did sell some kachinas before, but had no problem, as they are educational dolls. But for this sale, I cannot do anything. If I stop the sale, I have fees, my client puts me on trial, and I am condemned. The only way to stop an auction is through a legal procedure. But I will write a communiqué, as I have received threats, and now I do not even want to open the mails. I have had enough: "you are a thief, a crook, we will break you," etc.

Is the seller aware of all that?

Well, I do keep him aware - and he will see how much the security bill is climbing! But he is French. Americans know about all that, and the regulations, but the other buyers do not, so I inform them that those pieces cannot be legally possessed in the U.S.

Will the controversy of this auction discourage future Native American auctions?

This is the only and last big sale of Hopi masks from the USA that will take place in Europe, ever. But we will continue to sell the objects of other tribes, like the Plains Indians, and the tribes who are not attached religiously to their objects.

Is there a big market?

Yes, quite big.

So to be clear - all this controversy does not change your position

You know, intimidation... The least you can do is ask for an appointment, and visit. But threats? No. To all those threatening emails, I have the same answer: No. They come from specific groups, Native Americans, Americans, from the U.S., and continue with some Europeans. It is political, and it's been going on for two months.

But don't you think that the conflict continues because of this different idea of art? For you, it is just "art." And the misunderstanding comes from a lack of knowledge about this culture.

Well, yes, it is a very unknown culture here in Europe.

But there is no misunderstanding. It is just a small group of people thinking that those pieces are theirs, that the objects have been stolen. And we have to remain rational - if they want them, they can buy them or propose a solution. But the only thing I received are demands of restitution, to return the pieces to the USA.

They mention their pain... if it is a matter of pain, I would do what I could to diminish it. But these objects are in France, they belong to a French collector today; and except for three of them, these are not sacred masks. They are common masks.

Then you maintain that the tribe's position is not legitimate?

It is extremist! And legally, France is not a province of the United States! We cannot apply North American law in France. Moreover, before asking for the return of items from France, they should ask the American museums to return their pieces. The same with the American collectors. Because all those collections come from the United States, from the 19th century: they are not from the '70s. Many Native Americans sold their masks, and so did the missionaries who were converting them.

How do you feel about the comparison of these Hopi items with art looted by Nazis in World War II?

Oh yes, I did receive some letters like that, where I was treated in an extremist way. But it has nothing to do with this issue: Hopis used to sell their masks to the tourists! And now about a dozen Hopis are in jail for having sold masks. Like in Africa, all that comes down to business. If the Natives would deal with experts, they would have exhibitions in the great museums, and that would honor their culture.

So for you, the problem with these types of sales is that they are not structured or controlled?

There is no protection in this field, and that is what the New York Times article stated. So, let's hope that part of this collection will go to German and French museums.

Editor's note: the Navajo-Hopi Observer reprints the preceding interview courtesy of Indian Country Today Media Network.

Katherine Locke

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - A Paris judge allowed the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou house to auction off close to 70 Hopi sacred objects for $1.2 million April 12 despite objections from the tribe and other advocates.

According to the French newspaper Le Monde, Judge Magali Bouvier said in his ruling that while the objects may have "a sacred value, a religious nature, or represent the spirit of these people's ancestors, it remains evident that they cannot be equated to bodies or body parts of living or dead people."

Hopi Tribal Chairman LeRoy Shingoitewa said the Hopi people are saddened and disheartened by the ruling.

"It is sad to think that the French will allow the Hopi Tribe to suffer through the same cultural and religious thefts, denigrations and exploitations they experienced in the 1940s," he said. "Would there be outrage if Holocaust artifacts, Papal heirlooms or Quranic manuscripts were going up for sale on Friday to the highest bidder? I think so. Given the importance of these ceremonial objects to Hopi religion, you can understand why Hopis regard this - or any sale - as sacrilege, and why we regard an auction not as homage but as a desecration to our religion."

U.S. ambassador to France Charles Rivkin tried to intervene. He tweeted after the judge's ruling.

"I am saddened to learn that the sacred Hopi cultural objects are being put out to auction in Paris today," he said.

Survival International, an advocacy group which normally campaigns to help stop indigenous peoples' lands from being stolen from them, volunteered to help the Hopi with this case.

"French law offers very few opportunities to stop this kind of sale," said Jonathan Mazower, director of advocacy and press for Survival International. "They don't recognize that items of a religious nature ought to be treated differently than items of a commercial nature.

"But we thought it was important to intervene, we had seen the news about this auction and because we had an office in Paris, we thought we were in a position to do something about it."

In the U.S. there are laws that protect against this kind of thing but there is no similar law in France, he said. He added that the Hopi belief that a single person can't own the sacred objects worked against them.

Mazower said the only way the Hopi Tribe could stop the auction was to prove that the objects belonged to a specific individual.

He said that Survival International exists to try to even the odds a little bit for indigenous tribes.

"In these kinds of cases, the odds are stacked so much against them," Mazower said. "You have a million dollar auction going on with all the economic muscle of a big auction house in Paris and I'm sure the Hopi would see this as just the latest in a very long history of exploitation and disrespect in its most fundamental form."

Shingoitewa said that going forward he believes Indian tribes throughout the country need to come together and begin to look for ways they can help establish international law that will help protect sacred objects beyond the boundaries of the United States.

The director of the auction house insisted that the auction was an homage to the Hopi Tribe and after the ruling said he was concerned about their sadness. The Associated Press quoted a collector saying that if it weren't for the collectors and their interest that people wouldn't understand anything about the Hopi.

"I believe we want people to understand who we are and to respect us for the way we believe," Shingoitewa said. "But how these sacred objects were bought and then carried out of the auction house in bags and in sacks, you know, in our mind, that is sacrilegious."

Shingoitewa said it wasn't merely the auction that saddened him but all the photographs and descriptions of the sacred objects that were in different media outlets.

"In our way of life they are alive, and they give our people strength, they give our people the knowledge and the ability to move forward in our life on a daily basis," Shingoitewa said.

Shingoitewa said the Hopi appreciate all the support they received throughout the state of Arizona by tribes, organizations and museums, the U.S. government through the embassy and also by the people in France and throughout the world.

"This experience has not changed the Hopi," Shingoitewa said. "When people come to us we will welcome them, we will make more friends than we had before. We have to keep moving forward, tomorrow morning the sun is going to come up and we just don't stop, we have to keep going so that Hopi continues to thrive."

Shingoitewa said that perhaps the ordeal is a way to remind the Hopi of their beliefs.

"Once you are Hopi, you will always be a Hopi and with that in mind you move forward and always treat people with respect and dignity and always have a smile on your face," Shingoitewa said.

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