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Updated Dec 9, 2013 - 7:36 am

Auction house ignores US plea to delay Hopi masks sale

PARIS -- A French auction house on Monday ignored an urgent request by the U.S. Embassy to delay an auction of dozens of sacred Hopi masks and put them on sale.

EVE auctioneers said the sale of 32 artifacts is legal in France and it proceeded Monday afternoon under high security, with several guards in the auction room. The American Indian tribes said the artifacts represent their ancestors' spirits and are unsellable.

The U.S. Embassy made a request for delay on behalf of the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes, to allow them time to travel and identify the controversial artifacts and investigate whether they have a claim to the items under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Both France and the U.S. are signatories to the treaty.

The auction house said it stands by French law.

"The Hopi tribe was able to argue their case before a judge (last week) and was rebuffed," said a short statement from the auction house, which added, without elaborating, that it had exchanged letters with the San Carlos Apache tribe whose objects are included in the sale alongside a Zuni tribe altar, and Native American frescoes and dolls.

The Katsinam masks are surreal faces made from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers and painted in vivid pigments of red, blue, yellow and orange. Unlike commercial art, the Hopis argue, these objects are akin to tombs and represent their ancestors' spirits; nurtured and fed as if they are the living dead.

The objects sold briskly on Monday. One crow mother mask, with a geometric face flanked by crow feathers, sold for 100,000 euros ($136,000). Another mask set off a phone-bidding war and sold for 31,000 euros ($42,300).

Pierre Servan-Schreiber, the Hopis' French lawyer, bought one mask for 13,000 euros ($17,700) and intends to return it to the tribe. All prices exclude fees.

Last week, the Hopi tribe took the auction house to court to try to block the sale, arguing that they are "bitterly opposed" to the use as commercial art of sacred masks that represent their ancestors' spirits. They lost, with the judge highlighting that France does not possess laws to protect indigenous peoples.

Following that, the U.S. Ambassador to the UN cultural agency, UNESCO, David Killion, co-wrote an open letter to argue the Hopis' case. He called for countries, including France, to tighten "laws at a national level to impede profiteering in culturally significant sacred objects."

UNESCO said it cannot intervene in this issue unless it receives a formal request from the U.S.

In April, a Paris court had ruled that such sales are legal, and around 70 Hopi masks were sold for some $1.2 million despite vocal protests and criticism from the U.S. government and actor Robert Redford.

The tribe has said it believes the masks, which date back to the late 19th and early 20th century, were taken illegally from a northern Arizona reservation in the early 20th century.

"What shocks me is that people ask the Hopis to prove these things are theirs," said Maria White, a coordinator for the nongovernmental organization Idle No More and a member of the Kogui tribe in Colombia. "How can you think these objects have been taken legally? It's certain they're stolen."

The Associated Press is not transmitting images of the objects because the Hopi have long kept the items out of public view and consider it sacrilegious for any images of the objects to appear.

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