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Eyewitness Account: The Hopi Katsinam Auction in Paris

At the request of a friend who worked for the Hopi and is married to one, I got involved in opposing the sacrilegious sales of 70 Hopi katsinam by Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou in the auction house Drouot in Paris on April 12th. I went as an observer so the Hopi would know what went down.

Entering Salle 7 (Room seven) for viewing was overwhelming. The air was dense, heavy, packed with energies. The beauty was moving, the spirit could be felt coming from some of the ‘Friends’ as the Hopi call these entities. It felt uncomfortable -- as if, being lumped together, the Friends were unhappy. As if the energies of the different Friends were uneasy with each other. I saw Friends that Hopi have never ever seen, and that I and the buying audience should never have seen. I took pictures which I’ll share with Hopi and bought some catalogs.

As we waited for the ruling by the French judge, I eavesdropped on conversations and learned that at least one buyer at the auction, the Fondation Joe Dassin, named after a French singer-songwriter who died in 1980, would be returning the Friend they bought to the Hopi Nation. There were several bidders over the phone and one can hope some also bought one or more katsinam to be returned to the Hopi.

Pour ou contre – For or against

The court ruled that to forbid this auction would set a dangerous precedent for all future sales of religious artifacts. The court case came about because Survival International – an NGO defending the rights of indigenous people – hired the lawyer Pierre Servan Schreiber to plead the case. Security was strict; there were protests in front of the entrance to the building. Upon reentering the building for the actual sale I was asked by security whether I was for or against: Pour ou contre?

My answer, "I am an observer," was good enough to gain admittance for me and my friend, José. The auction room itself wasn’t big, and only people who had a catalog were allowed in -- the assumption being that at the price of 20 €, only bidders would buy a catalog. In under two hours, 68 Friends were auctioned off. Two objects were Navajo and a few were Acoma, Zuni or Jemez. Two Friends were withheld since they didn’t get the minimum price.

As I was listening to the discussions during the viewing before the sale, I was approached and asked whether I would answer some questions: Why was I there? Why does it matter to me? I spoke about the Friends – no, no, I insisted, they are not masks – they are embodied spirits, they belong to the group, to the Hopi as collective property versus individual property. I tried to choose my words with care, not speaking for the Hopi, just sharing what I learned while visiting Hopi.

A million dollar business

To the question How do the Hopi feel? -- what could I answer? I tried to share the devastation, the anger, the grief, the disbelief, the pain the people feel. The loss of these Friends is immense. Europeans don’t seem to understand, and wonder why can’t the Hopi just make new ones?

I heard that the auction was supposed to bring 1,000,000 €. Of course to the Hopi they have no material value, they have no price tag. Several people were ejected from the auction. One journalist, her cell phone or recorder running, was pushed out. One American lady was escorted out and her last word was in French: "Dégueulasse!" Disgusting.A young Hopi from third Mesa, after saying one word, had to leave the room. I had been told right at the beginning to stop taking pictures and no filming. Since I wanted to take notes, I complied.

Friends in the store room

Three shocking sights:

The two "specialists," Eric Geneste (of cabinet Mickeler Geneste) and the consultant Daniel Dubois. For instance, when they spoke about the Sun god, they mentioned the beautiful patina on the inside of the "mask," proving it had been worn during ceremonial dances -- thus selling, literally, the sweat and the breath of the dancers wearing the Friend.

Buyers, immediately after buying a Friend. They would go to the storeroom, then come out with an open cardboard box, with part of a Friend looking over the rim. One buyer came out with a Friend in a white plastic bag, as if returning home from a supermarket with bag full of groceries. One wonders how they spend so much money -- say, a year's wages for a skilled music teacher -- and yet just get an "object," and don’t treat it with the due respect.

The auction master himself. He made maybe the most offensive comment of the day, concerning number 14, the "Left Handed Katsina, for Powanu in February." When he noticed the Friend’s eyes are diamond shaped, he insisted on calling this Friend the "Renault Katsina," and laughing about his own joke.

Never again?

The whole event got a lot of people doing what they could to prevent it and might have raised enough awareness to not hold such "exceptionally rich" auctions anymore. The danger is that katsinam might surface here and there, and just be included in a general auction without anyone even noticing or saying much about it. The auction master said, "Folks, you realize there won’t be another such auction soon. This has caused way too much trouble."

On our way back home, I guess the Katsinam had their say -- in the form of two hard, torrential rains and pelting hail.