Birkhold on ‘Double-Edged’ Repatriation

The Hopi village of Walpi, on top of the First Mesa on the Hopi Reservation
The Hopi village of Walpi, on top of the First Mesa on the Hopi Reservation

Native American objects make for popular, if controversial, auctions in France. And that trend looks to continue. Last month in Paris the auction house EVE had put up for auction a number of sacred native american objects. The objects had been held by French private collectors. Their history has not been uncovered by the press. Many of the object originated from the Hopi nation, and the Hopi went to French court to seek a return of the objects, but were unsuccessful.

The auction on December 9th proceeded and the objects all were sold. Yet the buyer was the Anenberg foundation. Speaking later, Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, vice president and director of the Anenberg foundation stated of the Hopi objects:

These are not trophies to have on one’s mantel, . . . They are truly sacred works for the Native Americans. They do not belong in auction houses or private collection.

As Matthew Birkhold argues, the Annenberg Foundation essentially purchased the right to decide what happens to the objects:

At the auction, the foundation purchased the ability to make the decision about who should own the cultural artifacts, notably, artifacts the tribes couldn’t — or wouldn’t — buy themselves, even after legal and diplomatic efforts to delay the auction failed. And even though the foundation arguably made the right decision to restore the artifacts to the tribes, it has legitimized the very situation it means to criticize, making the sacred objects seem fair game.

Moreover, the subjects of the tribes’ and the foundation’s censure — the auction house and those participating in the art market — are unlikely to hear the reproach, especially because the auction proved so successful. The auction house likely cares more about the $1.6 million in sales than who bought the contested items or what happens to them.

Maybe it would have been better for the tribes to have lost the objects. The tribes could have made a more meaningful statement by repudiating the sale and doggedly insisting on their legal claims to the items. Such a response would reaffirm the tribes’ sovereignty while rejecting the notion that a price can be put on sacred objects. However, the decision to make such a sacrifice — forgoing their cultural artifacts — has to come from the tribes.

The best bet for indigenous people to secure their cultural property is through the legal system, where taking a principled stand could pay dividends.

A good result was reached in this case for the Hopi. Their sacred objects can return home. And the Annenberg foundation certainly has the funds for this. But the underlying mechanics of auctions and heritage protection and preservation remain unchanged. Other groups without the goodwill of well-funded organizations will not see such a good result.

  1. Annenberg’s Double-Edged Gift to the Hopi, Bloomberg,
  2. Tom Mashberg, Secret Bids Guide Hopi Indians’ Spirits Home, The New York Times, Dec. 16, 2013.


4 thoughts on “Birkhold on ‘Double-Edged’ Repatriation”

  1. This blog and news coverage in general has completely glossed over two important facts. First, having represented several tribes in the past, I can say with some authority that tribes rarely speak with one voice. I would suspect here that not everyone thinks that these objects are sacred. Indeed, there has been information buried in the comments of a New York Times article that similar items were openly sold by tribal members as recently as the late 1970’s. (As a kid, I visited the American SW with my family. I also seem to remember similar items being sold in stores run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs.) Second, there has been no discussion of the fact that these materials will likely be ritually destroyed. That raises the question if repatriation is ever justified when it will lead to destruction.

    1. Peter Tompa, important points you completely ignored or glossed over is that the masks returned to the tribes are their masks, and it is their right to do with them what they would in accordance with their beliefs. Who are you or anyone outside of their tribe to decide what they should do with their items?

      What you are displaying in that extremely odious opinion that you (this you being a general one) are more informed, intelligent, aware, etc. so that you should make choices for what you see as a “child race” who still needs to have their choices guided by your omnipotent ethics. Yes, that is somewhat an exaggeration for effect, but apt.

      Additionally, whatever your opinion is about tribal unity or dissonance, that does not make you an authority, and it is arrogant (but typical) to present your opinion as fact and a reason, or better yet, an excuse, to take the choice of cultural item usage away from their cultural group just because your kids or grandkids what to see them in a museum in the future. You do not know what they will do with the materials.

      Stop the latter day colonialism and empirism, plus the condescension and speculation to has always been a detriment to the indigenous.

      1. The last post is a prime example of the heat rather than light that has been displayed in coverage of this issue. The fact is the masks at issue here could very well have been sold either by the Native Americans that made them or their families. There should be more research into that distinct possibility before accusations are hurled around against anyone.

        1. This last post is a prime example of a simpleminded fool who doesn’t a thing about about how most of these objects were stolen from the Hopi reservation in the 1970s, by white do gooders who lied about the real reasons they were on the reservation to start with. The fact remains that they want their cultural patrimony items returned, and you, as an outsider have no say in the matter, Peter.

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