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Paris auction of sacred Hopi masks goes ahead

A picture taken on April 5, 2013 in Paris shows the 'Ho-ote' sacred mask of Arizona's Hopi native American tribe
A picture taken on April 5, 2013 in Paris shows the "Ho-ote" sacred mask of Arizona's Hopi native American tribe. A French court on Friday rejected a request for an injunction against the auction in Paris of ceremonial masks originating from Arizona's Hop

An auction of ceremonial masks originating from Arizona's Hopi tribe took place in Paris on Friday only a few hours after a court allowed a sale that opponents said amounted to "sacrilege".

Some 70 brightly coloured "Kachina" visages and headdresses were put on sale by the Neret-Minet auction house, with an estimated total value of between 600,000 and 800,000 euros (between $780,000 and $1 million).

A court in Paris had earlier rejected a request for an injunction against the sale of the artefacts, which representatives of the Native American tribe said were sacred objects that should be returned to them.

High-profile figures including actor Robert Redford and the US ambassador to Paris had called for the sale to be cancelled or delayed, but the court ruled that the auction did not violate the law.

Bo Lomahquahu, France's sole native American Hopi descendant, poses in front of the Drouot auction house, April 12, 2013
Bo Lomahquahu, France's sole native American Hopi descendant, poses in front of the Drouot auction house on April 12, 2013 in Paris, during the controversial auction of some 70 ceremonial sacred masks originating from the Hopi tribe of Arizona.

The auction has outraged members of the 18,000-strong Hopi tribe, who say the items are blessed with divine spirits. Two Arizona museums had also called for the sale to be cancelled.

Neret-Minet said there were no grounds to halt the sale because the items were acquired legally by a French collector during a 30-year residence in the United States.

It welcomed the court's ruling, saying a ban would have set a dangerous precedent.

"It seems important not to create a precedent banning the sale of all objects of a sacred nature, whatever the culture concerned," the auction house said in a statement.

"Our goal has always been to showcase Hopi culture and to make it accessible to the greatest number of people in the strictest accordance with the law."

A picture from April 5, 2013 in Paris shows the 'Heheya-Aumutaka' sacred mask of  Arizona's Hopi native American tribe
A picture taken on April 5, 2013 in Paris shows the "Heheya-Aumutaka" sacred mask of Arizona's Hopi native American tribe.

But Bo Lomahquahu, a 25-year-old Hopi and student in Paris who attended the auction, said the sale should never have been allowed to take place.

"They aren't just art objects, we believe they have a spirit in them," he told AFP.

Lomahquahu said the objects were part of private rituals and were not meant to even be on public display. "Hopefully someone will step in and buy the masks and bring them back to us," he said.

In the court ruling allowing the sale, judge Magali Bouvier said that while the masks may be considered to have a "sacred value or religious nature", they did not qualify to be banned for sale.

"The mere fact that these objects can be qualified as religious... does not confer on them the character of property the sale of which would be manifestly illegal," the judge wrote.

A French lawyer for the tribe, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, described the ruling as "restrictive and ill-founded", but said he hoped opponents' efforts had raised public awareness.

US actor Robert Redford poses during the 69th Venice Film Festival on September 6, 2012
US actor Robert Redford poses during the 69th Venice Film Festival on September 6, 2012.

"It is the beginning of a real awareness in public opinion that not everything can be bought and sold, especially not something that is so intimate and sacred," he said.

In a letter of support to the tribe, Hollywood star Redford had written that the masks "belong to the Hopi and the Hopi alone".

"To auction these would be, in my opinion, a sacrilege -- a criminal gesture that contains grave moral repercussions.

"I would hope that these sacred items can be returned to the Hopi tribe where they belong. They are not for auction," added Redford, who described himself "as a close friend" of the tribe.

In a statement released late Thursday, US ambassador to Paris Charles Rivkin had also urged a postponement.

"Hopi representatives have requested a delay in the sale in order to better identify and determine the provenance of the objects," he said. "A delay would allow the creators of these sacred objects the chance to determine their possible rights."

The sale of sacred Native American artefacts has been outlawed in the United States since 1990 -- legislation which has allowed the Hopi tribe to recover items held by American museums in the past -- but the law does not extend to sales overseas.