Navajos buy back artifacts at disputed auction

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PARIS (AP) — The largest Native American tribe in the American Southwest won its bid Monday to buy back seven sacred masks at a contested auction of tribal artifacts in Paris that netted over a million dollars.

The objects for sale at the Drouot auction house included religious masks, colored in pigment, that are believed to have been used in Navajo wintertime healing ceremonies but that generally are disassembled and returned to the earth once the nine-day ceremonies conclude.

The sale went ahead despite efforts by the U.S. government and Arizona's congressional delegation to halt it.

The sales at the auction — which totaled 929,000 euros ($1.12 million) — also included dozens of Hopi kachina dolls and several striking Pueblo masks embellished with horse hair, bone and feathers, thought to be from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

The Associated Press is not transmitting images of the objects because both the Navajo and Hopi have strict rules against recording and photographing ceremonies featuring the items that otherwise are kept entirely out of public view. The Navajo Nation initially included a photo of the masks in a news release but later retracted it, saying it was a mistake. The Hopi tribe considers it sacrilegious for any of the images of the objects to appear.

The U.S. Embassy in Paris had asked Drouot to suspend the sale to allow Navajo and Hopi representatives to determine if they were stolen from the tribes. But Drouot refused, arguing that the auction was in accordance with the law — and that a French tribunal had previously ruled that a similar sale was legal.

Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim said the objects were not art but "living and breathing beings" that should not be traded commercially.

Jim, a medicine man who traveled to Paris for the auction with three other Navajo officials, said they were unable to determine the exact provenance of the artifacts but said they had to face the reality of the auction and buy them back.

"They are sacred masks ... and unfortunately they end up here. Whether that is legal or illegal ... we don't know. What we do know is that they are for sale," Jim said.

The Navajo Nation representatives bid for seven masks at the auction, winning them for $9,120 despite a bidding war with a private collector.

French art collector Armand Hui bid for several masks but told the AP he backed down when he saw that tribal members had come in person buy them.

"I wanted to respect that," he said.

The approaches of the Hopi and Navajo, whose reservations neighbor each other in the northeastern corner of Arizona, are different in that the Hopi people see the sale as sacrilege and did not travel to Paris for the auction, said Pierre Servan-Schreiber, a lawyer representing the Hopis. The Hopi tribe has said that only a member of the tribe has the right to possess the items that embody the spirits of their ancestors.

"Hopis were opposed to buying back their artifacts as they did not want to engage in the auction," Servan-Schreiber said.

Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie said he was appalled by the latest sale.

Navajo Nation spokesman Deswood Tome said it would be incumbent upon the leaders of the Navajo and Hopi tribes to discuss how to approach any future sales of sacred items in foreign countries.

"If there are religious items that are sacred in the future, the leadership will have to determine what steps they will take," said Tome. "Buying these masks here today is a precedent that we've set."


Thomas Adamson can be followed at


Oleg Cetinic in Paris and Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report

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