In the late 1800s and early 1900s ethnographers, anthropologists, and associates of museums and private collectors were dispatched to Zuni to collect items that represented the ceremonial and ritualistic aspects of our culture. This was no simple and painless undertaking because items ceremonially made and used in our religious ceremonies are never to be sold or traded. Nevertheless some Zuni ceremonial items were looted from Zuni and found their way into a few collections. Around this time non-native traders living in Zuni recognized the demand for Zuni ceremonial objects and the opportunity to benefit from this appetite. It didn’t take long before at least one trader launched a small underground industry to produce fake Zuni ceremonial items.
After carefully examining thousands of “ceremonial” objects including Zuni masks held in museums and private collections throughout the world our museum staff and Zuni religious leaders confirmed that a substantial number of objects labeled as ceremonial are actually fakes or misidentified as ceremonial. If the shameless business of dealing in looted antiquities and the bad karma that goes with it isn’t enough, let me say to the auctioneers and possible purchasers of the 71 Hopi and Zuni masks to be auctioned by Neret-Minet in Paris, it’s buyer beware because the only way to absolutely authenticate a Zuni ceremonial object is to seek truth at the source by having Zuni experts, the people of the source community themselves, physically inspect the object. But that is unlikely in the case of a private auction overseas. So a carrier and potential buyer can only be assured of one thing, they may have a fake.
Let’s bid farewell to the deceptions, plundering, and pain brought on by this exploitive and unethical trade in sacred objects. Let’s bury the fault line between medieval self-indulgence and the vanguards of morality and respect for indigenous peoples everywhere. Make the trade in sacred antiquities illegal everywhere.
Jim Enote is the director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center, Zuni, New Mexico.