Dec 15, 2014 10:20 AM

Navajos buy back artifacts at Paris auction

The Associated Press

PARIS (AP) Navajo officials won their bid to buy back seven tribal masks at a contested auction of native American artifacts in Paris that netted over a million dollars. Monday's sale went ahead despite the best efforts by the U.S. government and Senator John McCain to halt it.

The objects for sale at the Drouot auction house included sacred masks, colored in pigment, believed to have been used in Navajo wintertime healing ceremonies.

The sale which totaled 929,000 euros ($1.12 million) also included dozens of Hopi Kachina dolls and several striking Pueblo masks embellished with horse hair, bone and feathers, the origins of which are unclear.

The U.S. Embassy in Paris had asked Drouot to suspend the sale to allow Navajo and Hopi representatives determine where they came from. But Drouot refused, arguing that the sale was in accordance with the law and that a French tribunal had previously ruled that a similar sale was legal.

Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim said they are not art but "living and breathing beings," and should not be traded commercially to be "decorating homes or to hang in art galleries."

Jim, a medicine man who traveled to Paris for the auction with three other Navajo officials, said they were unable to determine the exact provenance of the artifacts, but said they had to face the reality of the auction and buy them back.

"They are sacred masks... and unfortunately they end up here. Whether that is legal or illegal... We don't know. What we do know is that they are for sale, to be auctioned this afternoon and we are here and prepared to bid for them," Jim said.

The Navajo Nation representatives bid for seven masks at the auction and won, despite an initial bidding war with a private collector.

French art collector Armand Hui competed on several masks, but later told The AP that he "backed down" when he saw that the tribal members had come in person buy them back. "I wanted to respect that," he said.

The lawyer representing the absent Hopi tribe, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, said the approaches of the Hopis and the Navajos were different and said the Hopis see the sale as sacrilege.

"Hopis were opposed to buying back their artifacts as they did not want to engage in the auction," said Servan-Schreiber.

He acknowledged that the various tribes' fight to get back their artifacts might benefit if the various nations showed a "common front" and worked together, not separately.

The Associated Press is not transmitting images of the objects because the Hopi have long kept the items out of public view and consider it sacrilegious for any images of the objects to appear.


Thomas Adamson can be followed at


Oleg Cetinic in Paris contributed to this report.


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