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Paris Auction House Owner: Katsinam 'Not Entitled to Specific Rights'

The owner of the Parisian auction house EVE discusses why he feels justified in proceeding with an auction that includes sacred Hopi katsinam

Today, an auction of American Indian art is occurring in Paris that will once again prove controversial -- as with a similar sale earlier this year, attempts to stop or delay the event have failed, and items sacred to the Hopi and other tribes will be sold to the highest bidders. This time, it's the auction house EVE that will be handling the sale.

A year ago, Eve's owner, discussing an auction called "From Yukon to Rio Grande," spoke with an ICTMN correspondent. “The French market views Native art in a different way than the American,” said Alain Leroy. “The French consider anthropological issues as secondary. The most important is the visual, aesthetic shock, from Yukon, to Rio Grande”.

In Paris, any collector experiencing an esthetic emotion, and a direct contact with an item, will buy it,” he added. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s Maori or Hopi.… And when you have the chance, you have to pick it up!”

The second auction of katsinam takes place on Monday, December 9, at 2pm -- in other words, now -- at Salle Drouot, in Paris. Many of the pieces scheduled to go on the block were expected to sell in the range of 3,000 to 15,000 euros; higher-ticket items include "Jemez" (expected price: 15,000 to 20,000 euros), "Angwushshay" (expected price: 60,000 to 80,000 euros) and a group of four katsinam, “Pueblo Andamamae” (expected price: 60,000 to 80,000 euros). At a December 3 hearing, Survival International lawyer Pierre Servan Schreiber, argued against the sale, but his efforts failed to convince the French judge.

Prior to the current auction, Leroy took a few moments to speak with ICTMN, to describe his position on this sale and, more generally, on the sales of sacred items on the contemporary art market.

Maître Leroy, what is your perception of this new auction?

This auction is very similar to the last one ["From Yukon to Rio Grande"], with the same topic, related to the Southwest of the United States, with some more ancient pieces this time for that section, as well as Plains Indians objects, and pre Colombian art. Only twenty-five pieces were requested to be taken away from the auction this time.

How do you see the evolution of that market?

This area of the market attracts a growing audience; that is why we will continue the auctions. Today we have pieces from the Southwest, the Plains, the Eskimo, and all of the United States.

You declared, on television, that France being a secular country, there was no issue related to the religious, or “sacred” aspects of the objects, as these types of pieces have always been on the market. Furthermore, France respects Buddhism, Judaism, or any other religion, and those objects are no different -- thus, the request of Survival international was not valid?

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That is what the judge said; cult, or “sacred” objects, are not excluded from the sales, because the state is secular, and does not privilege one religion over another. So those objects are not entitled to specific rights.

And it is a world position, as long as a state does not have a single state religion.

The United States respects all religions, but sacred objects are not prohibited from the sales there; the law says that they can be possessed by private owners, and can circulate on the market. It is in the Fifth Amendment. Sacred objects can be owned privately.

So your understanding is that there is no valid reason to accommodate Survival International’s request?

Well, I am not saying that, it is the judge who says so, referring to the law; she felt that it applied. Those objects are allowed to be sold in the United States. And in the first place, it would be appropriate to define how those pieces came out from their original locations.

Would not the bottom line of the debate be a fundamental conflict between the perception of the “sacred” among spiritual, or traditional societies, and the secular ones?

Well, yes, each person sees a religious object like he wishes to, according to his religion.

You mean that the katsina are looked at like any religious objects, in any religious institution, like for example, objects belonging to the Judeo Christian religion?

Yes: they are religious. What other meaning would there be? Each religion is the foundation of a people -- this is the principle of religions. 

So your opinion is that this is just another kind of art, and with those pieces being part of an art trend, the present request is not legitimate, as it not part of modernity, and just restricted to a historical approach, a strict reference to history?

Certainly: Native American religions have followed an evolution. Like any other religion.