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.
- Annenberg’s Double-Edged Gift to the Hopi, Bloomberg, http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2013-12-26/annenberg-s-double-edged-gift-to-the-hopi.html
- Tom Mashberg, Secret Bids Guide Hopi Indians’ Spirits Home, The New York Times, Dec. 16, 2013.