Can the Hopi Thwart the Sale of Sacred Objects in Paris Next Week?

A Hopi helmet representing the Crow Mother (more slides via NYT)

Next week the Néret-Minet auction house in Paris will auction a number of Hopi objects, many of which are more than 100 years old, and many of which are considered sacred. Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office in Kykotsmovi, Arizona says of the objects: “Sacred items like this should not have a commercial value. . . . The bottom line is we believe they were taken illegally.”

The auction house claims that the objects were purchased as early as the 1930’s, and that all the objects were sold as long ago as the 1960’s.

Tom Mashberg reports for the New York Times that:

Historians say many Hopi artifacts were taken long ago by people who found them unattended in shrines and on altars along the mesas of the Southwest. Others were confiscated by missionaries who came to convert the tribe in the late 19th century. Some were sold by tribe members. But even those sales were not legitimate, Hopi leaders say, because they may have been made under duress, and because the tribe holds that an individual cannot hold title to its religious artifacts — they are owned communally.

This of course is why many of these objects were acquired in the last century. The Hopi have a fundamentally different view of property and sacred objects. They have a communal relationship to these objects. When that view of objects is linked with western legal systems, the results can be messy. But I think there are a number of legal challenges that can be made to the auction of these objects.

Possible action could include an action for the recovery of stolen property. The Hopi would have to establish that they have a relationship to these objects that is sufficient to allow a French court to deny the sale. Or the United States government could intervene and protest the sale on the grounds some of the objects were removed from Federal or tribal lands and are considered stolen under the Archaeological Resources Protection Act. But the difficulty with both of those legal options is the problem of proof.

The best chance for a quick resolution to the sale may be to generate enough headaches for the auction house, the consignor, and any potential buyers. The New York Times piece will help raise the profile for the auction, but it will also require some vocal and I’m sorry to say expensive, actions on the part of the Hopi or their advocates.

In a case like this, it is true that seldom have we seen works of art from the United States exported and sold in a way which upsets the creator culture. If the market for Native American art continues to be this robust, it may take more concerted action on the part of the Federal government to intervene. I don’t think this is an issue of uneven application of international cultural heritage law, much of which is soft. The reporting and some reaction seems to suggest the U.S. does a better job of helping foreign nations in their efforts to repatriate. I don’t get the sense that that is right. Rather I’m not sure we have a good robust set of tools to seek repatriation from abroad when it is warranted. And there are a number of reasons for that. For one, I don’t think Native American tribes have been confronted with this problem very often either because it didn’t happen or they weren’t aware. But also we don’t have a good organized cultural apparatus in the United States. We rely on lots of very capable Museums and other organizations. But in the case of international repatriation. It really helps to have an active and organized set of voices acting in concert. We just don’t have that in the United States. So there are challenges for the Hopi here, but other similar groups have shown that patient and persistent appeal to reason can impact the disposition of these objects.

Mashberg, Tom. “Hopi Tribe Wants to Stop Paris Auction of Artifacts.The New York Times, April 3, 2013, sec. Arts / Art & Design.

Questions or Comments? Email me at derek.fincham@gmail.com

2 thoughts on “Can the Hopi Thwart the Sale of Sacred Objects in Paris Next Week?”

  1. “But the difficulty with both of those legal options is the problem of proof.”

    Ah, that nasty problem of lack of proof… This is of course the key sentence in the article — the claim that these items were stolen are not supported by any proof. Anyone can make arbitrary accusations and claims, but in America those who are accused of wrong are considered to be innocent until proven guilty. Thank goodness for the rule of law…

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