April 9, 2013 / 8:40 PM / 6 years ago

French auction firm faces court test over sale of Hopi tribal masks

PHOENIX (Reuters) - A Paris auction house is facing a court hearing aimed at halting the controversial sale of a trove of antique tribal masks revered as sacred ritual artifacts by a Native American tribe in Arizona, an international tribal advocacy group said on Tuesday.

The Hopi Tribe, living in a dozen scattered villages on a northeastern Arizona reservation, wrote to auctioneer Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou last month asking it to cancel its planned sale of 70 objects including the sacred Katsinam masks, and asked for their return.

On Tuesday, London-based Survival International weighed into the dispute, sayings its lawyers had obtained permission from a Paris judge to take the auction house to court on Thursday, where it will call for the suspension of the auction.

The Hopi, some of whose 18,000 members continue to follow a traditional way of life farming on three isolated mesas, believe the bright, mostly fabric masks are imbued with the spirits of divine messengers, and they want them returned.

“It ought to be pretty clear to the auctioneers that the sale of these objects would cause profound hurt and distress to the Hopi people,” Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, said in a statement.

“To the Hopi, these are not museum objects but an intrinsic part of a thriving, living culture, which should be treated with respect. The auction house should think again and cancel the sale,” he added.

According to a Neret-Minet catalog, the collection was assembled by “an amateur with assured taste” who lived in the United States for three decades. An email to the auction house seeking comment was not immediately answered on Tuesday.

Survival International wants the sale suspended pending a “proper examination of the lawfulness of the collection and its sale,” the group said in a news release.

The Hopi Tribe’s cultural preservation director, Leigh J. Kuwanwisiwma, previously wrote to the auction house saying that no-one other that a member of the tribe had the right to posses the “sacred objects,” which she said should never have left the tribe’s jurisdiction.

The catalog shows dozens of hoods, some simple, some elaborate and some with wooden or metal beaks and ears. Auction prices are expected to range from about $2,000 to $32,000, according to the catalog.

Kuwanwisiwma said the Katsinam, which are used during religious ceremonies related to the farming calendar, are “objects of cultural patrimony” protected by the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), a document the French government signed.

She urged the auction house to inform its clients of the tribe’s objection and ask the private owner to contact the Hopi Office of Cultural Preservation to discuss the masks’ return. The tribe will not bid on the masks.

The Heard Museum in Phoenix, which since 1929 has highlighted the art and artifacts of American Indian tribes, has also backed the Hopis in the dispute.

Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh

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