Skip to main content

Hopi Katsinam Auction in Paris: A Conversation with the Auctioneer

On Friday, April 12, the Parisian auction house Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou plans to sell 70 Hopi katsinam, commonly referred to as masks, to the highest bidder. This sizable auction of objects considered sacred by the Hopi has created quite an international furor, with Hopi and other Natives, as well as museum curators, calling on the auction house to cancel the auction and return the pieces to the Hopi.

Auctioneer Gilles Néret-Minet has found himself at the center of the controversy. He has received a stream of angry correspondence, and even threats. He spoke with an ICTMN reporter on the condition that his words not be changed. We have attempted to keep the responses below as close as possible to Néret-Minet’s original French answers.

Does all this buzz about the sale change your plans?

No – because France is a country of rights! All the mail in the world will not change anything. I am answering through my lawyer; and either I get the auction, or I do not. But if not, it would be a reconsideration of the nature of private property in France, which would have a huge impact on this issue. These objects are not “protected” in France, or in Europe. Only in the United States; and particularly in those two states, Arizona and New Mexico, where the Hopi tribes live. Also, those masks are only sacred when used in a dance. They are not sacred afterward. They are put aside, or destroyed. So the Hopi want to claim these objects, and we don’t know where they will go -- they might just disappear. This is unbelievable! If they can claim these objects now, then African art is over, and the Cluny museum [of medieval objects, in Paris] would give back all of its pieces to the churches. If we are questioning the principle of “religious art,” we should question the entire notion of art. I think this issue should be addressed to the Americans, and that is what the New York Times article says: There is no bi-national agreement of restitution. That’s it!

What is your understanding of the tribe’s claim regarding their ritual objects?

Well, it is the same as if the Bretons here in France would ask for us to return their headdress.

It seems like there is a disagreement between the notion of art, and religious or ritual art?

If you question and revalue “religious art,” then we would have to stop selling any religious piece: sculpture, jewelry, painting, architecture, etc., as it includes all of those categories. So I will not cede to pressure, unless it goes through the judicial system. My lawyers told me that I do not have to give back these collections: it would be as if, during an auction at Drouot, your neighbor is opposed to the sale because he feels that it represents a profanation of the church.

We have to remain rational: France is a country of rights; we are not the 51st state of the United States. This collection is totally exceptional. Many museums are interested, as those masks are more than a hundred years old. So stop the aggression!

I have received about 20 mails of protest a day, all similar, with the same presentation. We do not even know who is writing them, or with whom to communicate to negotiate. And I do not have the slightest knowledge about these organizations: Are they democratically-elected, do they represent the people -- or are they part of a feudal system?

But you must have some indication of origin, globally, regarding these claims?

These claims, with no judicial foundation, come from the tribe, and their friends -- like a professor of a university -- who protest.

Why are those claims not valid?

On a legal basis, they are not valid. On a personal, emotional, subjective, or religious basis, they might be valid, but I cannot do anything about that. I have a mandate from the seller, in France, who has owned this collection long before NAGPRA was passed. And I sell, that is it! I know everything about how he got it; it is only a part of his collection, as he is a great lover of Native art, and has a huge collection. I did not get it from a flea market seller who was getting rid of stolen goods! I care about Native arts, even if I have not done many sales.

How can you be assured of the origins and authenticity of those pieces, and how do you react to suggestions by some Native experts that those pieces should be vetted by Native-recognized experts?

…Ah, yes! Now they say I am selling fakes! Why such a fuss, then, if I am selling fakes? Andy Warhol too, was accused of having fake masks. That is not a dumb question – but if we knew everything there would be no more polemics, then! (Laugh) Well, we will see them in the Branly museum [France’s foremost museum of indigenous art], that is all! People say all kinds of things, and I get threatening letters. Do you think I really like having to hire security? It seems like the Hopi lobbies are stronger than the Africans! 

So, all this must be a shock for you?

No, the same thing was going on with the Pierre Bergé auction [of Hopi items]. As soon as it is becomes significant, they try. But there are state-to-state agreements, concerning human remains, like the Maori, in New Zealand; and I would never have taken those, as I understand the point of those agreements. But masks are sacred only when used during a dance! That is what my experts told me: They are a relation between the spirit world and the dancer, and after the dance, it is over. Moreover, some of these masks may be sacred, like the Crow Mother [one of the items on sale], but not all of them are -- but they want them all back. Then they are shocked at the money issue: but some Hopis are in jail because they have sold masks that should be returned. [For more information, see today’s column "You Can’t Convey What You Don’t Have" by C. Timothy McKeown --Ed.] And those masks were sold by the Native Americans themselves!

If we follow this logic, then the British museum should return the friezes of the Parthenon, and the Louvre the Italian paintings, and so on.

How do you know those masks are no longer sacred after they are used in a dance?

I have experts [Eric Geneste (cabinet Mickeler Geneste) and the consultant Daniel Dubois], and they are among the best -- they know. According to them, as long as these items are active, they are sacred; but afterwards, it is over. The sacredness is like electricity, and afterward they have been unplugged. And my experts make a distinction between the sacred ones, and the common ones. I think the people who asked me for all the masks did not consider that question. They want them all, and there should be a balance. 

Is this your first Native American sale?

No, I did sell some kachinas before, but had no problem, as they are educational dolls. But for this sale, I cannot do anything. If I stop the sale, I have fees, my client puts me on trial, and I am condemned. The only way to stop an auction is through a legal procedure. But I will write a communiqué, as I have received threats, and now I do not even want to open the mails. I have had enough: “you are a thief, a crook, we will break you”, etc.

Is the seller aware of all that?

Well, I do keep him aware -- and he will see how much the security bill is climbing! But he is French. Americans know about all that, and the regulations, but the other buyers do not, so I inform them that those pieces cannot be legally possessed in the US.

Will the controversy of this auction discourage future Native American auctions?

This is the only and last big sale of Hopi masks from the USA that will take place in Europe, ever. But we will continue to sell the objects of other tribes, like the Plains Indians, and the tribes who are not attached religiously to their objects.

Is there a big market?

Yes, quite big.

So to be clear -- all this controversy does not change your position?

You know, intimidation… The least you can do is ask for an appointment, and visit. But threats? No. To all those threatening emails, I have the same answer: No. They come from specific groups, Native Americans, Americans, from the US, and continue with some Europeans. It is political, and it’s been going on for two months.

But don’t you think that the conflict continues because of this different idea of art? For you, it is just “art”. And the misunderstanding comes from a lack of knowledge about this culture.

Well, yes, it is a very unknown culture here in Europe.

But there is no misunderstanding. It is just a small group of people thinking that those pieces are theirs, that the objects have been stolen. And we have to remain rational -- if they want them, they can buy them or propose a solution. But the only thing I received are demands of restitution, to return the pieces to the USA.

They mention their pain… if it is a matter of pain, I would do what I could to diminish it. But these objects are in France, they belong to a French collector today; and except for three of them, these are not sacred masks. They are common masks.

Then you maintain that the tribe’s position is not legitimate?

It is extremist! And legally, France is not a province of the United States! We cannot apply North American law in France. Moreover, before asking for the return of items from France, they should ask the American museums to return their pieces. The same with the American collectors. Because all those collections come from the United States, from the 19th century: they are not from the '70s. Many Native Americans sold their masks, and so did the missionaries who were converting them.

How do you feel about the comparison of these Hopi items with art looted by Nazis in World War II?

Oh yes, I did receive some letters like that, where I was treated in an extremist way. But it has nothing to do with this issue: Hopis used to sell their masks to the tourists! And now about a dozen Hopis are in jail for having sold masks. Like in Africa, all that comes down to business. If the Natives would deal with experts, they would have exhibitions in the great museums, and that would honor their culture.

So for you, the problem with these types of sales is that they are not structured or controlled?

There is no protection in this field, and that is what the New York Times article stated. So, let’s hope that part of this collection will go to German and French museums.