The Auction of Native American Artifacts

Next week an auction house in France will sell hundreds of Native American items, some of which are considered sacred.

An expert at a French auction hangs Hopi artifacts.  (Christian Hartmann / Reuters)

Next week an auction house in France will sell hundreds of Native American artifacts, including a Lakota Sioux warrior’s jacket made of human hair and scalps, and a Hopi ceremonial headdress from the 1880s. Native American leaders are upset about the potential sale of the artifacts they say are of cultural and religious significance.

On Tuesday, about a dozen tribal representatives gathered at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., for an emergency meeting to ask France to intervene.

“These objects are living beings to us,” said Bradley Marshall, of the Hoopa Valley Tribal Council in California. “These objects are part of our family; these objects are part of who we are as a people; these objects have a sacred purpose within our community.”

One of the items being sold is a battle shield from the Acoma Pueblo tribe of New Mexico that the auction house, Eve, described as “very rare” and “nineteenth century or older.”

“The Acoma shield is a sacred item that no individual can own,” Kurt Riley, the governor of the Acoma Pueblo tribe, said. “It is not made for commercial use or intended to be created as of artistic value.”

Riley became especially emotional at the meeting, and he pleaded for the auction house to return the shield to his people. After he returned to his home in New Mexico the next day, Riley told me of his frustration.

“It’s difficult,” he said, “when there’s someone else deciding what’s art and what’s cultural patrimony.”

Legally, there’s little Riley––or any Native American tribe––can do to stop the auction. In the U.S., the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act gives tribes a right to claim an artifact of cultural or religious significance from museums. But internationally, the U.S. has little legal say over transactions involving Native American artifacts, as was seen the previous times French auction houses put them up for sale.

On one occasion, in 2013, Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou, an auction house, planned to sell 70 artifacts, most of them headdresses the Hopi regard as sacred. The Hopi live in northeastern Arizona, and their tribal council tried to stop the auction. Their chairman, LeRoy Shingoitewa, even likened it to walking into a church, yanking down the cross, then sticking it in the ground to use as a fence post. The fight over the auction gathered international attention, and when a reporter with the news site Indian Country asked the company’s auctioneer, Gilles Néret-Minet, if the negative publicity would stop the auction, Néret-Minet replied: “No—because France is a country of rights!”

The Hopi sent the auction house a copy of their constitution that outlaws selling religious items and filed several lawsuits. But the French courts sided with the sellers.

France has long been a center for the sale of tribal artifacts from much of the world, and many of these objects are prized by collectors. But for the people to whom these objects originally belonged, the items possess religious or historical value—and they want them back. That’s the root of a fear not only in France, but across other Western countries, as well. It’s a fear perhaps best articulated by Néret-Minet, when he spoke about demands to return the Hopi headdresses.

“If they can claim these objects now,” he told Indian Country in 2013, “then African art is over, and the Cluny museum [of medieval objects, in Paris] would give back all of its pieces to the churches. If we are questioning the principle of ‘religious art,’ we should question the entire notion of art.”

The auction went forward in April 2013, making $1.2 million. One of the winners was Monroe Warshaw, an American art collector and exhibitor who bought two of the “Katsina” ceremonial headdresses, some of the most sacred objects of the Hopi people. Warshaw had little idea of the items’ history, or of the controversy around them. Of his impulsive buy, he simply thought they were gorgeous, he told me. “I had never seen such things.”

Warshaw saw beauty, history, and inspiration in the headdress. They were the qualities a collectors wants in art. But the Hopi saw more—as did the Acoma Pueblo tribe in a battle shield that is up for sale next week in Paris. The Acoma have lived on their land, about an hour from Albuquerque, New Mexico, for more than 800 years. When Riley, the Acoma governor, learned the shield was being auctioned, he consulted the tribe’s religious leaders who asked their office of historic preservation to investigate.

It’s not clear when the Acoma lost the shield, but one possibility is in the 1920s, when Protestant missionaries proselytized to the Acoma to give up their old religions. The investigative team found the shield had, in fact, belonged to an Acoma family, Riley said. It was a special find, because in a small community as old as the Acoma, culture, religion, family history, are all imbued inside some artifacts. And though those items may have been looked after by a single family, they are seen as belonging to the entire community if they are of religious importance.

“The shield is one of those items,” Riley said.

Through the tribe’s lawyers, Riley said he asked the auction house to return to shield. They said he could bid on it. Now he fears it will be lost, unless someone can help.

In the past, when tribes can’t buy back their own artifacts, other have done it for them. That was the case in 2015 when the Eve auction house––the same one auctioning the shield next week––sold off 27 Katsina headdress, the ones the Hopi people believe hold spirits. The Hopi hired a lawyer and asked the U.S. government to intervene, but were unsuccessful. From their homes in Arizona, some Hopi watched online as one bidder bought nearly every headdress. The anonymous bidder, later revealed to be the Annenberg Foundation, paid $530,695 and bought all but three of the sacred Hopi objects. The foundation eventually returned them to the Hopi. Although he didn’t know it yet, Warshaw, the American collector who bought the headdresses at the Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction in 2013, would end up doing the same thing.

Just after the auction in 2013, Warshaw told a reporter he didn’t believe the tribe should get them back, because the Hopi only wanted the headdresses now that they “have a value.” Warshaw, who collects and sells drawings by renowned masters, didn’t know what he’d do with the two Hopi pieces for which he’d paid $40,000, but he figured he’d donate them to a museum.

Warshaw had traveled to Paris in the midst of a nine-month road trip around the U.S. with his golden retriever, Pastrami. In June 2013, two months after the auction, Warshaw thought he’d drive up to see the Hopi people for himself. By the end of that month, he and Pastrami were high in the plateaued deserts, seated in an old village, watching Hopi ceremonial dancers who all wore the same sacred headdresses he’d bought in Paris.

“I realized,” he told me, “these objects, these headdresses, still lived with them.”

And so he gave them back.