Lawyer Has Hope That Auctions of Sacred Items Will Someday Stop

Last week we saw yet another contested auction of sacred Native American items in Paris. Will it ever end? The lawyer who helps the Hopi sees a way.

A new auction of sacred Hopi katsinam and Navajo masks took place in Paris on December 15, despite attempts to stop the sale that included a letter from the American Ambassador in Paris, Mrs. Jane D. Hartley, to the auction house.

A Navajo delegation, led by Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim, purchased seven sacred Navajo masks, for a total of $9,120. mentions Jared King, "In total, there were 24 masks on sale this summer," Jared King, Communications Director of the Navajo Nation Washington Office, explained to ICTMN. "Those seven were part of that previous sale where, unfortunately, we were not able to buy. This is the first time we've traveled abroad to buy our masks from an auction house; we decided to do so after the summer sale. They are now back with our medicine people, going through a cleansing process before our wintertime ceremony. They were not meant to be hanging on walls of galleries, or museums. That is the difference between our concepts, and the western approach. "

RELATED:Navajo Nation Buys Back 7 Sacred Masks at Controversial Parisian Auction

As for the future, Federal Judge Diane J. Humetewa’s presence in Paris last spring, and her meetings with the French authorities, might have an impact on future auctions of sacred items in France, as lawyer Pierre Servan Schreiber explained to us.

What’s new, since the last auction?

From a legal perspective, nothing much; we tried three times to get the sale suspended, but the court said that if the items were improperly exported or acquired from the United States, we should make claims against the owners. We responded that there was no time, as we learn about the sales just before they take place. But we did request the names of the sellers and buyers from the auction house after the first sale—which they refused to give to us, naturally.

So this time, we did not try to suspend the sale before it happened, but we are filing a motion to obtain the names of the sellers and buyers. Whether we will obtain from the judge the authorization to get those names and addresses remains a question, as there is strong resistance. But the French minister of justice, Mrs. Christiane Taubira, seems interested in the matter, and has asked the French auction sale regulator to prepare a report on the question. So, we wait…

Why is Mrs. Taubira interested?

Diane J. Humetewa, the federal judge recently appointed by President Obama, came to Paris last spring, and met Mrs. Taubira, who became interested, listening to what Mrs. Humetewa told her about the Katsinam.

So what would be the main obstacles for changes?

France is a big art market, and the general perception is that it should continue—therefore every art object should be freely bought and sold.

And there is a big cultural difference; in order to protect katsinam, we need to stress their importance in the Hopi religion. And that is a point of reluctance in France, for a judge to rule on whether an object is sacred or not. France is one of only two countries in the world which does not have any reference to God, or religion, in its constitution. It is a very secular system, so judges do not like to be asked to rule whether something is sacred.

How will you proceed then?

We would like a new treaty between France and the U.S.A. to be signed, reciprocating the Native repatriation act of the United States, in French law. Items exported after 1990 should be returned to the Natives. The French ministers of justice, of foreign affairs, and of culture, are in charge of that now. With Mrs. Taubira interested, it should be possible.

Though the identification of buyers is not allowed?

The internal regulation of auction houses says it is confidential—but it is not a law, just an internal regulation. And it would enable us to bring the people to court, ask them where and when they got the items from: if it is after the 90’s, we can claim ownership, and restitute them to the Hopi.

What was the auction like ?

There were tensions. The auctioneer made it clear that he would not tolerate any disturbances during the sale. And a person who expressed herself loudly was transferred by the security out of the room. 

I had a security guard behind my back, watching everything I was doing on my iPhone. So it was quite tense.

So "sacredness" is a delicate issue in France, and more so with recent violence by Islamic extremists, and polemics on the topic of religion and identity. If the French view is to deny these items' religious status, is it better to address this matter as an issue of post-colonialism?

Yes, I think you are right. That is why we did not address the sacredness, but said that these items are protected under US law, and have agreed, through a treaty, that this protection should apply in France so that the katsinam be returned to the Hopi, regardless if they are sacred or not.

How do you see the evolution of the auctions—what would be the process to prevent future ones?

There is a growing sensitivity to the issue, due to press releases, meetings, etc. The only way those sales could be prevented is by creating a collective perception that it is wrong. Whether through the media, or court action, people need to know why it is wrong, so that everybody thinks it is.

We have prepared a Franco-US treaty, to put limitations to the law, that we sent to the French minister of justice, and are now waiting for the next step. It should go through Parliament, so it is not going to happen tomorrow. We are looking at one or two years, before a draft law is proposed.

But I hope that one day, people will realize that not everything can be bought or sold.