Tribal masks fetch $942,000 in controversial French sale

PARIS - A Paris auction of sacred masks from the Hopi and San Carlos Apache Native American tribes fetched more than 550,000 euros (S$942,000) Monday, defying protests from the United States and activists.

The US embassy had asked for the suspension of the sale of colourful ceremonial masks and head-dresses after the failure Friday of a legal challenge by advocacy group Survival International on behalf of Arizona's Hopi tribe.

Some 24 "Kachina" masks - which are worn by dancers during religious ceremonies and considered living beings by the up to 18,000-strong Hopi - were sold for 520,375 euros (S$892,282), said the EVE auction house that organised the auction.

Three San Carlos Apache masks were also sold for 30,000 euros. A US embassy representative attended the auction to "show solidarity with the two tribes".

"We remain concerned about this sale, which took place before the Hopi or Apache tribes had the time to examine the objects and their origin to see whether they could claim them," Philip Breeden, minister counsellor for cultural affairs, told AFP.

In a letter sent Saturday to EVE, the US embassy argued that the two tribes should have had the time to determine whether they could recover the items under a UNESCO convention that fights against the illicit trafficking of cultural property, to which France is a signatory.

But EVE responded that "on the one hand, the Hopi tribe had the possibility to lay out its arguments in front of the judge and was dismissed, and on the other hand, an exchange of detailed letters took place with the San Carlos Apache tribe".

The battle is a rerun of one earlier this year in which French firm Neret-Minet ignored international appeals to halt the sale of some 70 Hopi masks that eventually fetched around 930,000 euros.

That auction was decried as a sacrilege by activists including Hollywood legend Robert Redford.

The sale of sacred Indian artefacts has been outlawed in the United States since 1990 but the law does not extend to sales overseas.

On Friday, the judge in charge of the legal challenge against EVE on behalf of the Hopi acknowledged that the sale of the objects could "constitute an affront to the dignity" of the tribe.

But she said "this moral and philosophical consideration does not in itself give the judge the right to suspend the sale of these masks which is not forbidden in France".

Pierre Servan-Schreiber, the lawyer representing the Hopis, also attended Monday's auction and bought one of the masks. He had also purchased one of the Hopi objects in April and later given it back to the tribe.

"These objects have such a big value for the tribes that they must not be sold," he said.

"It's another lost battle. But we will continue our action."

Objects for sale Monday included a leather helmet mask framed by two large crow wings, which went for 125,000 euros, against the 60,000-80,000 euro list price.