Sacred Hopi Masks Auctioned in Paris After Legal Bid Fails


Some 70 ceremonial masks originating from Arizona's Hopi tribe were sold for more than 900,000 euros ($1.2 million) on Friday after a legal challenge failed to prevent an auction decried by opponents as "sacrilege".

The sale of the brightly coloured "Kachina" visages and headdresses by the Neret-Minet auction house took place only hours after a court rejected a request for an injunction from representatives of the Native American tribe, who say the objects are sacred and should be returned to them.

Bidders crowded into the auction house for the sale, which saw the masks fetch a total of 931,435 euros from several buyers.

High-profile figures including actor Robert Redford and the U.S. ambassador to Paris had called for the sale to be cancelled or delayed, but the court ruled that the auction did not violate the law.

The auction outraged members of the 18,000-strong Hopi tribe, who say the items are blessed with divine spirits. Two Arizona museums had also called for the sale to be cancelled.

Neret-Minet said there were no grounds to halt the sale because the items were acquired legally by a French collector during a 30-year residence in the United States.

It welcomed the court's ruling, saying a ban would have set a dangerous precedent.

"It seems important not to create a precedent banning the sale of all objects of a sacred nature, whatever the culture concerned," the auction house said in a statement.

"Our goal has always been to showcase Hopi culture and to make it accessible to the greatest number of people in the strictest accordance with the law."

But Bo Lomahquahu, a 25-year-old Hopi and student in Paris who attended the auction, said the sale should never have been allowed to take place.

"They aren't just art objects, we believe they have a spirit in them," he told Agence France Presse.

Lomahquahu said the objects were part of private rituals and were not meant to even be on public display and that he hoped buyers would return the masks to the Hopi.

In the court ruling allowing the sale, judge Magali Bouvier said that while the masks may be considered to have a "sacred value or religious nature", they did not qualify to be banned for sale.

"The mere fact that these objects can be qualified as religious... does not confer on them the character of property the sale of which would be manifestly illegal," the judge wrote.

A French lawyer for the tribe, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, described the ruling as "restrictive and ill-founded", but said he hoped opponents' efforts had raised public awareness.

"It is the beginning of a real awareness in public opinion that not everything can be bought and sold, especially not something that is so intimate and sacred," he said.

In a letter of support to the tribe, Hollywood star Redford had written that the masks "belong to the Hopi and the Hopi alone".

"To auction these would be, in my opinion, a sacrilege -- a criminal gesture that contains grave moral repercussions.

"I would hope that these sacred items can be returned to the Hopi tribe where they belong. They are not for auction," added Redford, who described himself "as a close friend" of the tribe.

U.S. ambassador to Paris Charles Rivkin had also urged a postponement and said through Twitter on Friday that he was "saddened" by the sale of the "sacred Hopi cultural objects".

At least one buyer at the auction, the Fondation Joe Dassin named after a French singer-songwriter who died in 1980, said it would be returning a mask bought for 3,700 euros to the tribe.

A representative said Dassin, a popular musician in the early 1970s, had been "adopted" by a Hopi tribe while studying in the United States in the 1960s.

The sale of sacred Native American artefacts has been outlawed in the United States since 1990 -- legislation which has allowed the Hopi tribe to recover items held by American museums in the past -- but the law does not extend to sales overseas.

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