Sacred Hopi masks go under the hammer in Paris

An international association defending indigenous peoples tried, in vain, to stop the Parisian auction of 70 sacred Hopi Native American masks from Arizona. FRANCE 24 takes a closer look at an unusual cross-cultural spat.


70 sacred masks belonging to the American Indian Hopi tribe are being auctioned off on Friday at the elegant Hotel Drouot in Paris.

Though the Arizona-based tribe protested the foreign sale, and Survival International, a London-based association that defends tribal populations, filed a court action in France, a Parisian judge ruled on Friday to allow the event to proceed.

The spat has nevertheless riled the Hopi tribe and its advocates.

“It’s very odd that there are 70 masks that end up in the hands of a collector,” Pierre Servan-Schreiber, the French lawyer representing the association, told FRANCE 24. “We’re not saying they were obtained illegally, but given American and international laws that forbid the sale or exportation of such objects, there are questions that must be raised and answered. Once the sale is completed, we’ll lose track of the masks. It will be too late.”


The lawyer had sought to raise doubts about the legality of the collection, but also highlight how sacred the masks are to the Native American tribe. “These are not decorative masks,” he noted. “They are [according to Hopi culture] something that connects the world of the living to the spiritual world.”

The 18,000 Hopi Indians spread out around 12 towns in northern Arizona do not consider these mask, made of leather or wood and ornamented with horsehair or paint, as art, but rather as living beings that never should have left their native land.

“[The masks] personify spirits, called ‘Kachinas’, which are thought to bring rain or encourage fertility,” explained anthropologist Patrick Perez, the author of a book on the Hopi Indians of Arizona. “They are used in a religious context.”

According to Perez, the auction sale therefore amounts to sacrilege, and is the cause of genuine suffering among members of the tribe. “They feel awful about this. They are responsible [for the masks] and are supposed to guard them,” Perez said. “Now they believe that because of this auction, there may be less rain this year or fewer children born, or more disease. Imagine if we collected eucharists [Christian communion wafers] and put them up for auction. These are living rituals.”

French auction house says Hopi have ‘no legal foundation’

Faced with this indignation on the part of the tribe and its advocates, French auction house Néret-Minet Tessier responded that the collection of the masks, estimated to be worth between 600,000 and 800,000 euros, was acquired legally by a French citizen who lived for more than 30 years in the US.

“The claim that Hopi cultural patrimony is exclusively their property has no legal basis according to French law,” the auction house told French press agency Agence France-Presse. “They’re building their case around an article of the Hopi Constitution, which is not recognised in France because the tribe is not a state or country in and of itself.”

In the US, on the other hand, this type of controversy is no longer possible; in 1990, the federal NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act) law formally required all Native American cultural items to be returned to the appropriate tribe, and the type of auction set to take place in France is strictly forbidden.

The Hopi tribe has already announced that they would not be able to buy back the 70 masks -- which date back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- at the auction.

“The tribe does not have a lot of money, and in any case, they are not going to pay to get back what belongs to them in the first place,” noted Servan-Schreiber.

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