In A chaotic auction interrupted by protests, dozens of Native American tribal masks were sold yesterday after a French court rejected objections from the Hopi tribe and the US government.
The total tally was €931,000 (£794,000), with the most expensive, the Mother Crow mask, selling for €160,000 – more than three times the pre-sale estimate.
Of the 70 masks up for sale, one was bought by an association to give back to the Hopis, the Drouot auction house in Paris said.
Lawyers for the Hopi tribe had argued in court the masks have special status and are not art – they represent their dead ancestors’ spirits. The Hopis, a Native American tribe whose territory is surrounded by Arizona, nurture the masks as if they are the living dead.
The auctioneer insisted any move to block the sale could have broad repercussions and potentially force French museums to empty their collections of indigenous works.
The Katsinam, or “friends,” masks made up nearly all of the 70 lots that went on display at the auction house, offering a rare public glimpse of such works in Europe. The masks are surreal faces made from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers, and painted in vivid red, blue, yellow and orange.
They are from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and are thought to have been taken from a reservation in northern Arizona in the 1930s-40s.
Hopi representatives said the items were stolen and wanted the auctioneers to prove otherwise.
Hopi chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa said the judge’s decision to let the sale go on was disappointing but not unexpected.
“It’s a whole new legal field that many tribes have not truly experienced,” he said. “So I think the Native American tribes are going to have to start looking at this area.”