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Tribal masks under hammer in controversial French sale

A mask of the third Mesa Angwushahay'i during an auction of sacred objects from the Hopi and San Carlos Apache Native American tribes in Paris on December 9, 2013
A mask of the third Mesa Angwushahay'i during an auction of sacred objects from the Hopi and San Carlos Apache Native American tribes in Paris on December 9, 2013

A Paris auction of sacred objects from the Hopi and San Carlos Apache Native American tribes kicked off Monday despite objections from the United States and activists.

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

Worn by dancers during religious ceremonies and considered living beings by the up to 18,000-strong Hopi, the objects are deeply sacred and the tribe insists that their mere description as masks or artefacts is offensive.

In a letter to the EVE auction house, the US embassy said it had asked for the suspension so that the two tribes "might have the opportunity to identify the objects, investigate their provenance and determine whether they have a claim to recover the items under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, to which France is a signatory, or under other laws".

The convention aims to fight against the illicit trafficking of cultural property across the world.

Photo shows a rare Katsina Salimopia doll (circa 1940) during an auction of sacred objects from the Hopi and San Carlos Apache Native American tribes in Paris on December 9, 2013
Photo shows a rare Katsina Salimopia doll (circa 1940) during an auction of sacred objects from the Hopi and San Carlos Apache Native American tribes in Paris on December 9, 2013

But EVE announced Monday the sale would go ahead as planned.

"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", it said in a statement.

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 ($1.3 million).

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."

Photo shows a Katsina Hapota mask during an auction of sacred objects from the Hopi and San Carlos Apache Native American tribes in Paris on December 9, 2013
Photo shows a Katsina Hapota mask during an auction of sacred objects from the Hopi and San Carlos Apache Native American tribes in Paris on December 9, 2013

Pierre Servan-Schreiber, the lawyer representing the Hopis, slammed the decision.

It "does not respond to the following question: can absolutely everything be bought and sold to the highest bidder? Are there not some objects that by their very nature cannot be considered as mere objects of art and must be returned?" he asked.

"It's only a matter of time before we are proved right. We will not give up."

Objects for sale include a leather helmet mask framed by two large crow wings, going for 60,000 to 80,000 euros.

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