Update: Amid Protests of the Hopi Nation and Supporters, Auction of Sacred Artifacts Proceeds in Paris
December 5, 2019
By Ariel Friedman
This piece is an update to last week’s post: The Hopi Nation Attempts to Stop Paris Sale of Sacred Artifacts.
Amid protests, the controversial auction of Hopi mask-like artifacts in Paris proceeded as planned, over objections of the Hopi people and the United States government. The dramatic days leading to the sale were filled with diplomatic entreaties and a courtroom battle, attempting to keep the sale from going forward.
American diplomats applied political pressure to stop, or at least delay, the sale. On Wednesday, April 10, American diplomats met with French counterparts about the auction. The following day, Charles H. Rivkin, American Ambassador to France, released a statement that he was “very concerned” about the sale and raised the question of whether it should be precluded by the 1970 UNESCO convention on cultural property, to which both France and the United States are parties. Philip J. Breeden, cultural affairs minister of the US Embassy in Paris, also urged the auction house to delay the sale to allow Hopi tribal leaders to inspect the artifacts to determine authenticity and origin.
On the legal front, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, a lawyer from Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, working in a pro bono capacity, convinced a French Municipal Court Judge Magali Bouvier in Paris to hold a hearing this past Thursday, April 11 to determine the legality of the sale. He made three arguments. First, he argued that the items should not be sold until it can be determined whether or not the artifacts were stolen from Hopi lands or had been sold in violation of American or international law. He argued that looking into this history would be impossible once the sale had taken place and the piece were dispersed to different buyers. Second, he argued that according to an old prohibition in French law, it is illegal to sell “non-commercial” items that are seen as “immoral” to sell. Because selling the artifacts that the Hopi regard as embodying spiritual beings would be sacrilege, Servan-Schreiber argued the sale would violate French law. Finally, he further argued that the law prevents sale of “emotionally charged” objects that have been in a family so long they have become communal, multi-generational property.
The lawyers for Gilles Neret-Minet, head of the auction house, countered that “the claim that Hopi cultural patrimony is exclusively their property has no legal basis according to French law.”
The auction house also argued that blocking the sale would have broad repercussions for the art market generally and could force French museums to give up their collections of indigenous works.
The decision in the case was announced at noon on Friday, April 12, a mere two hours before the auction was set to begin at 2:30pm. The judge ultimately found for the auction house, stating that despite their sacred status among the Hopis, the works could not be likened to dead or alive beings. The court also alluded to the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, enacted in the United States in 1978, but stated that “no provisions banning the sale outside the United States of objected used in religious ceremonies or susceptible to be is applicable in France.”
When the sale began, Gilles Neret-Minet addressed the crowd of 200 buyers, assuring them that the sale had been declared legal in court. He said that “In France, you cannot just up and seize the property of a person that is lawfully his.” He added that he was “concerned about the Hopi’s sadness… and would not gloat.”
Until the end, Hopi supporters attempted to stop or stall the sale. Protests continued inside and outside the auction house for the duration of the sale. Dozens of protesters urged patrons of the auction not to purchase the works. The protesters had friends in high places. Actor Robert Redford had pledged his support for the Hopi people. French filmmaker Jo Beranger came to the protest in support of the Hopi claims, wielding a sign with a 1970s image of a Hopi leader in tribal beads holding a mask. Beranger told the Associated Press that the auction a “scandal” and “shameful,” and was eventually escorted out of the auction house by security guards.
Ultimately, the sale brought in 931,000 euros ($1.2 million). Although many pieces sold for less than their low estimates and five of the 70 lots were unsold, there were some surprises. The most expensive lot was the “Mother Crow” mask, selling for 160,000 euros ($209,000)–triple its high estimate. When the auctioneer announced its selling price, the crowd clapped, while a protester shouted “Don’t purchase that. It is a sacred being.”