Skip to main content

Sotheby’s wampum belts ‘a drop in the bucket’ of sacred items for sale

ONONDAGA NATION – Shannon Keller O’Loughlin has a unique job. As part of her work as tribal attorney for the Onondaga Nation, she monitors e-Bay and other Web sites of places that might harbor and trade in sacred items that rightfully belong to Indian nations.

“It’s amazing the kinds of things they continue to sell, not just from North American Indian cultures, but from all around the world. To Sotheby’s and some of these other big auction houses, they’re just commodities,” said O’Loughlin, Choctaw of Oklahoma.

She not only monitors the whereabouts of sacred objects, but also tries to get them back to their rightful owners.

“This is a huge issue. We’re trying, but there’s a lot of stuff out there and it seems that we never get much of it back. It’s just a drop in the bucket.”

O’Loughlin currently is negotiating with Sotheby’s in New York for the return of two wampum belts the auction house planned to put on the block May 20.

Sotheby’s sale of “American Indian Art”May 20 reaped a grand total of $2,681,697. Some of the items that sold were: • Large Kwakiutl Polychromed Wood Sun Mask,

estimated at $150,000 – $250,000, sold for $265,500. • Tlinglit Polychromed Wood Comb,

estimated at $60,000 – $80,000, sold for $145,500. • Early Haida Polychromed Wood Mask,

estimated at $100,000 – $150,000, sold for $92,500. • Northwest Coast Polychromed Wood Ceremonial Dance Rattle, estimated at $35,000 – $45,000, sold for $74,500. • Blackfoot Beaded and Fringed Hide Man’s Wearing Shirt, estimated at $30,000 – $50,000, sold for $68,500. The auction sold 138 of the 221 items offered.

The wampum belts were withdrawn after the Haudenosaunee Standing Committee and cultural resources representatives of the Abenaki and Penobscot Indians wrote Sotheby’s describing the belts’ ceremonial and cultural value, and requesting their return to the nations.

The committee represents the six nations of the Haudenosaunee (or Iroquois) Confederacy – Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora.

The letter didn’t work in and of itself, O’Loughlin said.

“They were very slow to respond. Sotheby’s general counsel, Jane Levine, was very cold about the whole thing.”

Levine told O’Loughlin the nations could submit a letter requesting donation of the items, or bid on them.

“I called her up and said, ‘You know, look, you happen to be having this auction during the Indigenous Peoples Forum (the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues annual meeting) so there’s already a delegation of Haudenosaunee here and we’ll be at the auction. That concerned her,” O’Loughlin said.

A few minutes later, the New York Times called Sotheby’s inquiring about the wampum belts.

“I think the letters and the possibility that a bunch of Indians were going to be in their halls and the NYT got them to remove the items, but that’s as far as we’ve gotten,” O’Loughlin said.

She asked Levine to arrange a meeting of the Haudenosaunee representatives with representatives of the estate of the consignor, the late Herbert G. Wellington Jr., and on June 3 received a response.

“They refuse to have a meeting with us. Sotheby’s told me that the consignor does not want to donate the items, but they’re willing to keep an offer open for 30 days for the Haudenosaunee to purchase the belts for $60,000, which is actually more than what they were listed at. They told me, and I quote, that this is about a financial action only. We haven’t made any decisions yet except to move forward in good faith that the right things will happen,” O’Loughlin said.

In response to a request for information regarding policies or procedures used to evaluate items of cultural patrimony from indigenous peoples, Sotheby’s wrote, in part, that “Sotheby’s is proud of the level of sensitivity and respect we render as an organization to consideration of the multiple issues surrounding cultural heritage and we take great care when considering such objects for sale. Sotheby’s is fully aware of the applicable legal obligations under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the Archaeological Resources Protection Act and the numerous other laws governing cultural heritage, and we are vigilant in complying with these laws and regulations.”

But there are no federal laws that protect against the private sale of indigenous cultural patrimony and sacred objects at auction or between individuals, unless those objects were stolen, O’Loughlin pointed out.

“Quite often there is just too little evidence to prove a theft that occurred over 100 years ago. Sotheby’s does not have a ‘no sale’ policy that supports the return of national cultural patrimony and sacred objects to their indigenous nations for the revitalization of their cultures.”

Christine G. Abrams, who wrote to Sotheby’s for the Haudenosaunee, also presented arguments within the human rights framework of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.

“Our nations assert that the possession of wampum by museums, historical societies, universities and private collectors is a violation of our human rights, group rights, political and religious freedoms, and is an infringement of our sovereignty,” Abrams wrote. She quoted the declaration’s Article 11, which asserts indigenous peoples right to “maintain, protect and develop the past, present and future manifestations of their cultures,” including artifacts and ceremonies.

The belts are an Oka Mohawk summons belt estimated to sell for $20,000 to $30,000, and an Abenaki belt estimated to sell for $15,000 to $20,000.

A summons belt was used by a nation’s council to summon other entities or individuals to the council.

The summons belt is linked to Frank Speck, a well-known anthropologist who studied Algonquian and Iroquoian peoples of the northeast woodlands during the early 20th century. Speck was adopted by members of the Seneca Nation into the Turtle Clan, which gave him an “in” with tribal nations, O’Loughlin said.

“A chief who had the belt passed away and his wife was probably swindled and convinced out of it by Frank Speck – and it’s generally known how he obtained items was by building a relationship with the Indian who had the item and saying, ‘It’s okay, I’ve been adopted and I’ll make sure it’s taken care of,’” O’Loughlin said.

Speck gave, traded, or bartered the belt to Gustav Heye, the founder/director of the Museum of the American Indian, which later became the National Museum of the American Indian. In the 1970s the belt was wrongfully de-accessioned to James Economos, a private dealer, who sold it to Wellington.

The provenance of the Abenaki belt is not as clear, but it too made its way into the Museum of the American Indian where it was wrongfully de-accessioned to Economos, along with seven other Indian items in 1972, and then into the consignor’s collection.

“The 21st century choice to send these two items to auction. … raises serious questions, given the common understanding in the present day among scholars, curators and indigenous leaders (also encoded in federal law) that wampum belts are considered sacred, ceremonial, communal and inalienable items of cultural patrimony,” Dr. Margaret Bruchac, coordinator of Native American Studies at the University of Connecticut, wrote to Sotheby’s.

“It is incomprehensible that in the year 2009 wholesale spiritual and cultural imperialism continues,” Abenaki Nation Repatriation and Site-protection Coordinator Donna Roberts Moody wrote to Sotheby’s.

These belts are just the tip of the iceberg; there are thousands of sacred objects on the market, including some that were created for the market, such as the false face masks the Rochester Museum commissioned in the 1930s, O’Loughlin said.

“The museum still has hundreds of them, but the traditional belief is that the image itself is sacred and not to be seen by the public. In fact, it’s dangerous for anyone outside of the medicine societies to see these images. So we even try to get those back.”

O’Loughlin contends that the contemporary attitude toward Indians’ cultural patrimony is part of a continuum that started 500 years ago.

“You could go back to manifest destiny and the doctrine of discovery and how those kinds of principles developed into what it is today. It’s based on trying to get rid of the Indians, trying to remove all vestiges of them, so, of course, today they think these items are a commodity that can be sold without any repercussions. They don’t understand that these cultures are still doing what they always did, still practicing those traditions that America tried to eradicate.”