The Hopi Indians of Arizona are trying to stop the sale of 70 sacred “masks” at an auction in Paris next week. The Hopi believe these object to be imbued with divine spirits, and that for outsiders to photograph, collect, or sell them, is sacrilegious. According to the auction house, the collector (who remains anonymous) legally purchased the objects at auctions and sales within the United States over a period of 30 years, starting in 1930, and therefore is in accordance with French law; Hopi leaders counter that any sales made by tribe were not legal, given that they may have been made under duress and since no individual Hopi can “own” a religious artifact, as it is owned communally. The impending auction—to take place on April 12—will be one of the largest auctions of Hopi artifacts and is estimated to procure $1 million. Although both the State and Interior Departments are advising the tribe, both agencies admit that their ability to intervene is limited. The laws currently in effect to protect the illicit sale of Indian artifacts only apply to the United States, and have no weight abroad.
It is a rare occurrence when a cultural heritage claim arises from the sale of American artifacts abroad. Jack F. Tope, the executive director of the Association on American Indian Affairs, discusses how, “Right now there just aren’t any prohibitions against this kind of foreign sale.” It is easy to forget, amid the turmoil of repatriation cases directed at or seeking a helping hand from the United States, that sacred artifacts belonging to the United States can just as easily end up in the foreign art market. Unfortunately, as Trope aptly states, “The leverage for international repatriation just isn’t there.” Just as cultures abroad have a right to their cultural heritage, so too do those in the United States. The paradox brought to light by the Hopi case is proof of our on-going need to continue examining and reevaluating world-wide laws pertaining to cultural heritage.
Originally posted by Sally Johnson on CulturalSecurity.net.
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