Despite efforts by the U.S. Embassy, Survival International, the Holocaust art Restitution Project, and even Federal Judge Diane Humetewa, an auction of sacred Hopi katsinam has once again taken place in Paris.
On Friday, auction house EVE, which sold a number of katsinam in December over similar objections, put 29 masks up for sale in an auction that also included Navajo pieces. Only 9 of the sacred Hopi items sold, for an average price of about $20,800.
On Thursday, a French body called the Conseil des Ventes (Board of Sales) ruled that the Hopi and other Native Tribes had no legal standing to challenge a sale on French soil. On Friday, a French judge rejected a civil suit seeking an injunction to halt the sale so that Hopi officials could inspect the items being sold. The court's decision was effectively no different than the results of challenges to previous auctions — Thomas Banyacya Jr. of the Hopi Tribe called it "sad but predictable."
The U.S. Embassy brought Humetewa, Hopi, an expert in Tribal law, to Paris to speak on the subject last week. Philip J. Breeden, the Embassy's minister counselor for information and cultural affairs, told the New York Times that the lectures generated interest in the issue and hoped that they would ultimately cause future buyers and sellers to reconsider such sales even though French government deems them legal. The fact that just nine of the 29 katsinam sold may be a sign that things are heading in that direction, Breeden speculated.
Ori Z. Soltes, chairman of the Holocaust Art Restitution Project, issued a strongly-worded statement via his group's blog:
The decision by the Conseil des Ventes is both tragic and shameful. The Conseil has refused to consider the provenance information for these objects in its decision, when everyone agrees in the United States that title for these sacred masks could have never vested with subsequent possessors. Furthermore, adding insult to injury, the Conseil held that the Hopi tribe, in fact ANY Indian tribe, has no legal existence or standing to pursue any cultural claim in France. This dismissive denial of access to justice flies in the face of the progress made in international law by all tribes and indigenous peoples, as the French government had expressed its support for the legal status of indigenous peoples by its endorsement in the UN General Assembly in support of the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP).