In a rare case of a cultural heritage claim arising from the sale of American artifacts abroad, the Hopi Indians of Arizona have asked federal officials to help stop a high-price auction of 70 sacred masks in Paris next week.
The tribe is receiving advice from the State and Interior Departments, but each agency says its ability to intervene is limited.
In many ways, the Hopi case illustrates a paradox in the way artifacts are repatriated around the world.
While foreign nations routinely rely on international accords to secure American help in retrieving antiquities from the United States, Washington has no reciprocal agreements governing American artifacts abroad. And the United States laws that provide some protection against the illicit sale of Indian artifacts in this country have no weight in foreign lands. So tribes reaching overseas to recover objects that they view as culturally important are left to do battle on their own.
“Right now there just aren’t any prohibitions against this kind of large foreign sale,” said Jack F. Trope, executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, which is seeking new laws and treaties that would give the United States more force to intervene. “The leverage for international repatriation just isn’t there.”
The Hopis, who number about 18,000 in northeast Arizona, regard the objects in the Paris sale, which they call Katsinam, or “friends,” as imbued with divine spirits. They object to calling them “masks” and say that outsiders who photograph, collect or sell them are committing sacrilege. The brightly colored visages and headdresses, often adorned with horsehair, sheepskin, feathers and maize, are thought to embody the spirits of warriors, animals, messengers, fire, rain and clouds, among other things. They are used today, as in the past, in many Hopi rites, like coming-of-age ceremonies and harvest rituals.
The Néret-Minet auction house in Paris says that its sale, on April 12, will be one of the largest auctions of Hopi artifacts ever, and it estimates that it will bring in $1 million. Many of the objects are more than 100 years old and carry estimates of $10,000 to $35,000. The auction house says that among the spirits represented are the Crow Mother, the Little Fire God and the Mud Head Clown.
“Sacred items like this should not have a commercial value,” said Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, director of the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office in Kykotsmovi, Ariz. “The bottom line is we believe they were taken illegally.”
The auction house says that a collector who has not been identified legally bought the items in the United States at sales and auctions over 30 years, beginning in the 1930s, and that the coming auction complies with French law.
“This sale is not just a business transaction but a homage to the Hopi Indians,” said Gilles Néret-Minet, the director of the house.
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.
The market for American Indian artifacts, both here and abroad, is robust, experts say, and auctions of Indian items in the United States typically proceed unimpeded by American law and unchallenged by most tribes. There are some protections, though, under United States theft statutes, experts say, as well as restrictions on the sale of pieces by museums and federal agencies.
The Hopis and their supporters say the Paris sale is especially objectionable because of its size and the religious significance of the items involved. They say it also illustrates a striking disparity between what the government is empowered to do to help a foreign country recover an object from the United States and its inability to do much to retrieve an American artifact for sale overseas.
When a nation like Italy or Cambodia claims ownership of an object in the United States, it typically invokes international accords that require American officials to take up the cases. The Justice Department, for example, recently sent two lawyers to Cambodia as part of an effort to help that country seize an ancient statue that Sotheby’s planned to auction in New York.
The United States does not have similar accords that it could cite in support of the Hopi claim on the Paris auction items. Several experts and activists said the United States had never viewed its own cultural patrimony as a priority because the country is relatively young, has long embraced the concept of free trade and has not historically focused on the cultural heritage issues of American Indians.
But American officials have demonstrated their concern over the Paris sale by providing the Hopis with legal guidance and diplomatic advice, officials said.
Emily Palus, the deputy division chief for tribal consultation with the Bureau of Land Management, a division of the Interior Department, recently wrote an e-mail to colleagues suggesting that they raise concerns about the growing “international trade in Native American cultural property, and the continued damage and impact it has on traditional cultural practices.”
In recent years Indian tribes have stepped up their efforts to recover cultural artifacts. The Hopis are considered among the most painstaking in that pursuit, and the tribe has recovered dozens of artifacts from American museums and sought to block auctions in the United States. It has never tried to halt an overseas sale before.
In the case of museums, tribes rely on a 1990 law, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, which governs the sale and handling of Indian cultural objects by American museums. Those institutions are barred from selling such items and must inventory their collections; they then must reach out to tribes or direct descendants to allow them to reclaim objects they view as important.
The process can be costly and take years, however, and unless pressed, some museums simply hold on to their collections.
In the French case, the Hopis sent a letter of objection last month to the Néret-Minet auction house. In it Mr. Kuwanwisiwma cited cultural heritage clauses in the tribe’s 1936 Constitution that say the items for sale are “held under religious custody by the Hopi people.”
Neither Mr. Kuwanwisiwma nor a lawyer for the Hopis, James E. Scarboro of Arnold & Porter in Denver, has received a reply, they said.
Kate Fitz Gibbon, an art law expert in Santa Fe, N.M., who specializes in tribal issues, said the Hopis could consider a claim that the items are stolen property. But doing so, she said, would require time, money and legal support that are often out of reach.
“The Paris auction of Hopi masks is a complex legal situation involving the interplay of international and domestic French law,” she said, adding that the Hopis might have to resort to publicity and “moral suasion.”
Mr. Néret-Minet said he was surprised by the Hopi reaction because similar auctions had not drawn attention, including one in Paris in December in which 23 Hopi items were purchased, eight of them by a local museum, the Musée du Quai Branly.
“Even if it chagrins them, for the tribe this is not a negative,” he said. “I think the Hopis should be happy that so many people want to understand and analyze their civilization.”
In response, Mr. Kuwanwisiwma said, “The Hopi Tribe is just disgusted with the continued offensive marketing of Hopi culture.”