U.S. Charity Buys Sacred Native American Masks For $530,000 To Return To Tribe

A French auction house ignored both a tribe’s request and the U.S. Embassy’s plea to delay an auction of sacred Native American masks and sold them Monday for $1.6 million.

1. At the Drouot auction house in France, Native American objects sold quickly on Monday, including the sacred Hopi mask “Crow Mother” that was bought at nearly twice its expected value at $171,000.

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

2. Update — Dec. 11, 6 p.m. ET:


The Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation announced Wednesday it bought 24 of the Native American objects sold at the auction Monday for a total of $530,000. The foundation said in a statement that it planned to return 21 masks to the Hopi Nation in Arizona, and three hood masks to the San Carlos Apache.

The Hopi believe the masks are imbued with the spirits of the dead and still use them in religious ceremonies, but do not display the masks to the public and consider it sacrilegious for any images of the objects to be photographed.

3. The masks date back to the mid-1800s and are made from wood, leather, and horse hair, and are painted bright red, blue, yellow, and orange.

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

Note the decorative corncobs casually placed around the “Crow Mother” mask and the Native American objects in the background at the Drouot auction.

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

“These are not trophies to have on one’s mantel,” said Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, director of the Annenberg Foundation. “They do not belong in auction houses or private collections.” The Foundation bid anonymously on Monday and set off a bidding war.

The decision was applauded by Hopi leaders. “Our hope is that this act sets an example for others that items of significant cultural and religious value can only be properly cared for by those vested with the proper knowledge and responsibility,” said Sam Tenakhongva, a Hopi cultural leader. “They simply cannot be put up for sale.”

6. The Hopi tribe maintains the masks were illegally taken from an Arizona reservation in the early 20th century.

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

Last week a judge ruled the the sale of the artifacts is legal in France. In the U.S. the sale of sacred Native American objects has been illegal since 1990 and the U.S. embassy sent a plea to France to delay the auction, which was ignored.

“These objects have a special significance for a people that still exists,” said the Hopi tribe’s French lawyer Pierre Servan-Schreiber. “When will someone realize that not everything can be sold and bought?”

Servan-Schreiber said he purchased one mask for 13,000 euros on Monday and he also intends to return it to the Hopi tribe of 18,000, according to the Associated Press.

Christian Hartmann / Reuters

In a similar case in April, a French court also ruled that such sales are legal, and around 70 Hopi masks were sold for about $1.2 million, despite a plea from the U.S. government and actor Robert Redford.

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