French auction firm faces court test over sale of Hopi tribal masks

Tue Apr 9, 2013 4:36pm EDT
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By Tim Gaynor

PHOENIX (Reuters) - A Paris auction house is facing a court hearing aimed at halting the controversial sale of a trove of antique tribal masks revered as sacred ritual artifacts by a Native American tribe in Arizona, an international tribal advocacy group said on Tuesday.

The Hopi Tribe, living in a dozen scattered villages on a northeastern Arizona reservation, wrote to auctioneer Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou last month asking it to cancel its planned sale of 70 objects including the sacred Katsinam masks, and asked for their return.

On Tuesday, London-based Survival International weighed into the dispute, sayings its lawyers had obtained permission from a Paris judge to take the auction house to court on Thursday, where it will call for the suspension of the auction.

The Hopi, some of whose 18,000 members continue to follow a traditional way of life farming on three isolated mesas, believe the bright, mostly fabric masks are imbued with the spirits of divine messengers, and they want them returned.

"It ought to be pretty clear to the auctioneers that the sale of these objects would cause profound hurt and distress to the Hopi people," Stephen Corry, Director of Survival International, said in a statement.

"To the Hopi, these are not museum objects but an intrinsic part of a thriving, living culture, which should be treated with respect. The auction house should think again and cancel the sale," he added.

According to a Neret-Minet catalog, the collection was assembled by "an amateur with assured taste" who lived in the United States for three decades. An email to the auction house seeking comment was not immediately answered on Tuesday.

Survival International wants the sale suspended pending a "proper examination of the lawfulness of the collection and its sale," the group said in a news release.   Continued...