Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Paradox in Repatriation – American Artifacts

Foreign nations habitually depend on international accords to enlist American help when seeking repatriation of artifacts from the United States; Washington, however, has no reciprocal agreements governing American artifacts abroad.  New York Times reporter Tom Mashberg describes how this paradox in the way artifacts are repatriated around the world is brought to light by the current Hopi case.
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


  1. Media sources seem to excel in parroting what they hear from other media sources and cultural groups that have alledgedly suffered a loss. Certainly the debate on repatriation is important expecially if those debating the issues are fact checked. The Hopi have individually owned masks and clan masks, the latter being owned communally. Clan masks are never legally sold because they do not belong to a single seller. On the other hand has anyone in the media even asked the question if there is a law at Hopi prohibiting a Hopi from selling his individually owned mask. What if the Hopi converts to Christianity... if there were a law would he be punishable by this law for selling his own personal property. In dealing with these issues now for amost 40 years I have never seen this question asked in print. One just assumes or as the New York Times (April 3, 2013) printed: "Some were sold by tribe members. But even those sales were not legitimate, Hopi leaders say, because they may have been made under duress, and because the tribe holds that an individual cannot hold title to its religious artifacts — they are owned communally." Is that true? No one seems to be asking. Would many on the reservation find selling these masks unacceptable.. absolutely. But is it illegal and does it serve as a basis for a stolen property claim? Nobody seems to be asking..JB

  2. I agree that this question must be asked—and answered—in order for the claim of duress to be validated. The point of this piece, however, was to draw attention to the bigger picture: the paradox that exists in the world-wide scheme of repatriation. This case involving the Hopi brings to light that there seems to be a lack of reciprocal agreements governing American artifacts abroad. The intent of this piece is to reinforce the importance of continuing to examine and reevaluate existing laws pertaining to cultural heritage.