Parisian Auction of Sacred Hopi Artifacts
December 13, 2013 6:19 AM   Subscribe

"These are not trophies to have on one’s mantel; they are truly sacred works for the Native Americans. They do not belong in auction houses or private collections." Despite protests by the US Embassy on behalf of the Hopi and San Carlos Apache, a Paris auction house continued with the sale of twenty-five katsinam (sacred masks). Surprisingly, the US based Annenberg Foundation bought twenty-four of them for $530,000 to return to the tribes. (Previously on a similar auction)
posted by Deflagro (74 comments total) 9 users marked this as a favorite

 
They should create more katsinam and flood the market; this would drive down the values and dissuade further auctions.

Given that the bulk of these items were created 80 years ago, it should not be so hard.
posted by Renoroc at 6:42 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Embarrasing to have the foundation buy them to return them. Turns them into hostage takers.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:42 AM on December 13, 2013


embarrassing for who?

i think it's great that the masks are back in the hands of the tribes. i wish france had done the right thing, but since that didn't happen, this seems the second best solution.
posted by nadawi at 6:48 AM on December 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


Not only did the Annenberg Foundation buy 24 of the 25, but the last was also purchased with the intent to return it to the Hopi. That's just grand, all around.

They should create more katsinam and flood the market

I think the point is that ceremonial objects such as these masks should not be sold at all.
posted by hippybear at 6:52 AM on December 13, 2013 [13 favorites]


Hostage takers? It seems they were purchased with the sole intent of returning the masks to the rightful owners, with support from the Hopi. If anything, the Annenberg Foundation served as "ransom payers."
posted by filthy light thief at 6:54 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


I'm assuming it's the auction house that's the hostage taker in this scenario, not the charitable buyers. Or that's how I read it, anyway.
posted by Sequence at 6:56 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


They seem like a classier joint than this, but I was a little disappointed that the Annenberg Foundation didn't have a big old DONATE NOW PayPal button at the bottom of the page.
posted by MCMikeNamara at 7:07 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's the right outcome, but the claim of "this is sacred so it cannot be sold" is a really weak argument. It's so broad that it is bound to be ignored the next time the same issue arises. They should have stuck to the argument that their acquisition was lawfully dubious in the first place.
posted by Thing at 7:16 AM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


their claim is a little beyond that - "this is so sacred it could not have been sold" is one of the arguments i've read, which does get into acquisition. the hopi have all sorts of artifacts on display around the world - they aren't saying nothing of theirs can be sold or displayed - they're saying these specific things have never been up for sale by them.
posted by nadawi at 7:20 AM on December 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


I think it's really hard - in many ways it would be best for the Hopi to have them, but on the other hand, they are likely to be cared for better and preserved for future generations in other collections (also actually seen and catalogued).

We put a strange focus on people's religious beliefs that we don't put on any other beliefs, even ones held as strongly or more strongly. And sometimes we put restrictions on them and sometimes we don't. There are religions we think of as silly and so we don't grant them what they want, and others we think of as serious. Who gets to decide? And how can people really say what "would have" or "should have" happened 70 years ago?
posted by corb at 7:33 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think it's really hard - in many ways it would be best for the Hopi to have them, but on the other hand, they are likely to be cared for better and preserved for future generations in other collections (also actually seen and catalogued).

The Hopi made these items for their own purposes, not to be used as pretty decor for rich white people. If they do or don't "take good care of them" that's their business. Because the objects were made by them for them.

What non-Hopi think of how they take care of their own artifacts is completely and utterly irrelevant.
posted by emjaybee at 7:44 AM on December 13, 2013 [59 favorites]


re acquisition: that was more subtle, too, IIRC, because they were arguing for a different sort of ownership than what westerners usually use. individuals appeared to have lawful possession of the items under a western conception of property, but the Hopi argued that the possessor's tribal identity meant they couldn't sell or give them away legitimately.
posted by jpe at 7:50 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


we return things the nazi's stole, not over religion, but because they were stolen as part of war and genocide. this isn't about believing in the hopi's religion, it's about returning things stolen or other wise ill gained as a result of america being built on top of already existing cultures that barely survived.

but on the other hand, they are likely to be cared for better and preserved for future generations in other collections (also actually seen and catalogued)

if someone has a classic car where only 20 exist and then decides to not take care of it, use it in demolition derbies, etc - a collector has no right to steal the car because it wasn't being properly cared for.
posted by nadawi at 7:51 AM on December 13, 2013 [27 favorites]


I'm confused after reading all the links. Are these objects masks of human scale that people would wear during ceremonies? Or are they kachina dolls, small statues representing the kachina that also are often wearing elaborate doll-sized masks? Are both sacred or are they treated differently by Hopi?

I had an Anglo friend in Santa Fe who collected kachina dolls. Not the $50 junk every tourist shop sells, but beautiful hand made elaborate statues that were true works of art. He was proud and respectful of his collection, but did explain that some Indians found their sale and ownership controversial. He was careful to always try to buy them directly from Hopi sources, so he felt it was OK. But those were dolls, designed for display, not masks to be worn during ceremonies.
posted by Nelson at 7:56 AM on December 13, 2013


I think Kachina dolls are treated differently. When I was a little girl and was at a Hopi reservation, they were offering some for sale, if my memory serves, because I remember begging my mom for one.
posted by corb at 7:58 AM on December 13, 2013


but on the other hand, they are likely to be cared for better and preserved for future generations in other collections (also actually seen and catalogued).

I think the thing is that they don't want them to be seen or catalogued at all, and that is an ethical viewpoint that more and more accepted in the (American) museum world. (I also have no idea what preservation the pieces will need, but I assume the tribe will provide the utmost care-- for a long time "we can do it better!" was the ongoing paternalistic attitude of museums and it was really damaging for some sites, locations, etc.) Their need to preserve the sacred is more important than museum displays, even aside from the rest of the argument.
posted by jetlagaddict at 7:58 AM on December 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


they are likely to be cared for better and preserved for future generations in other collections (also actually seen and catalogued).

For whose benefit, though? They were created for a purpose - not just for people to look at as art or artifact, but for use by specific peoples in specific ways, and those peoples and uses still exist now. What exactly would we be trying to preserve, and for whose future generations? We (non-Hopi) have already had them in our possession for more than a century - what have we done with them? Who has benefited from that possession, and is there yet even *more* benefit that can be derived if they had been bought by private collectors who put them in their houses?
posted by rtha at 7:59 AM on December 13, 2013 [7 favorites]


"we can do better" is also why a fuckton of native children were kidnapped and adopted out to white families or put in schools to "save" them. it's a grotesque viewpoint that i can't believe is still being floated.
posted by nadawi at 8:01 AM on December 13, 2013 [29 favorites]


I think it's really hard - in many ways it would be best for the Hopi to have them, but on the other hand, they are likely to be cared for better and preserved for future generations in other collections (also actually seen and catalogued).

This reeks of white man's burden reasoning. Can we not go down that road today?
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:02 AM on December 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


on the other hand, they are likely to be cared for better and preserved for future generations in other collections

These are functional items. What you're saying is like saying it's a pity that a family keeps their 100 yr old cards and photos on the mantlepiece, because, well, a museum could preserve it better. Preservation is not really the primary goal.
posted by smidgen at 8:18 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I think there's this whole difficult-to-let-go-of logic of collecting and saving that gets tied in to the market and to fear of death. Leaving aside the colonialism aspect because it's been covered upthread - I think we have to let go of the idea that we can "save" everything for future study and for future generations - there's just too much stuff, for one thing, and it's this sort of costive, hoarding, anxious kind of thought. Also the idea that we should be aiming to create this comprehensive museum/archive state where we've recorded all the masks and the traditions and the language in an ongoing, ever-larger collection that mirrors capitalism in its logic of perpetual growth far beyond usefulness.

It's difficult - it's the same urge where we buy books we'll never read, the idea that if we have access to the thing, someday we'll study it and know it and understand it. But there's just too much stuff, and more every day. We have to allow some things to just disappear - to be taken off the market and out of the archive, to float away and dissolve. Not everything has to be given a use-value for the future, some things can just be used up now, or taken out of the circuits of archive culture, or at least our archive culture. I think we have to learn to be cool with excess, that there's always more than we can ever archive or study or even know about, and our project isn't to try frantically to preserve and understand it all. Maybe someone somewhere else will know about it, or maybe no one will.

There are specific political projects where preserving and naming things is really important - I'm not saying that it would be okay if, like, all those artworks depicting people of color in early Europe just disappeared, or there were no record of LGBT Berlin or something. What I'm saying is that the abstract idea of saving and saving everything just to save it, and that it all has to be saved by us, is a bad idea that we need to let go of.



(there's a Derrida book, Archive Fever, that I've been meaning to look at that seems to touch on some of this stuff.

But also, there's a little story in Ursula Le Guin's book Always Coming Home called The Keeper which speaks very strongly to this and which has always haunted me. (Scroll up a couple of pages if I haven't linked the google books result correctly - the whole thing is there.)
posted by Frowner at 8:21 AM on December 13, 2013 [9 favorites]


Nelson, these are masks designed to be worn. The BBC article in the post has good photographs.
posted by blob at 8:41 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm glad that these were repatriated. It is concerning that now, owners of artifacts will see this as the new method of repatriation, instead of simply giving back the property of the tribes to the tribes, as they should have to begin with. I hope it doesn't set a bad precedent for greedy collectors.

If I were wealthy, I would own a foundation that bought private land that abutted reservations, then donate the land to the tribes to grow the reservations, but of course I'm not wealthy, but it's still an idea. Again, it's thing that would have to be done quietly to keep land owners from speculating, but speculators gonna speculate, amiright.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:43 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]


Right and for the next act, lets walk thro the museums in England and see how many of the exhibits needs to be returned to the rightful owners.
posted by asra at 8:43 AM on December 13, 2013


I think Kachina dolls are treated differently. When I was a little girl and was at a Hopi reservation, they were offering some for sale, if my memory serves, because I remember begging my mom for one.

The dolls are expressly made to encourage white people to keep their grubby hands away from the ceremonial masks.
posted by ocschwar at 8:50 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


The Haudenosaunee have created replicas of The Two Row Wampum and other sacred objects for public presentation and view. As they are replicas, the originals remain safely in the hands of their proper owners; the curious may view the replicas. This seems a reasonable compromise.
posted by kinnakeet at 8:52 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]



It's the right outcome, but the claim of "this is sacred so it cannot be sold" is a really weak argument.


The issue isn't that the Hopi call the mask sacred now. It's that they also called it sacred 80 years ago. That is evidence prima facie that the masks were communal property, and not the property of the individual Hopi tribal member who was cajoled, probably with alcohol, into handing them over to a white trader.

Under American law, (NAGPRA), these masks belong to the Hopi. But by the time NAGPRA kicked in, the masks were on French soil.
posted by ocschwar at 8:54 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


they are likely to be cared for better and preserved for future generations in other collections (also actually seen and catalogued).

The ceremonial use of these masks is, shall we say, vigorous, and subjects them to wear and tear. And the active maintenance and repair of these masks means the Hopi maintain a Ship of Theseus type of relationship with them.

Which is their prerogative.

By the way, the Hopi have a high rate of college attendance, and they do not lack for art preservation professionals. Plenty of their artifacts get the keep-behind-glass treatment, in the Hopi Rez and around the world.
posted by ocschwar at 9:03 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


The issue isn't that the Hopi call the mask sacred now. It's that they also called it sacred 80 years ago. That is evidence prima facie that the masks were communal property, and not the property of the individual Hopi tribal member who was cajoled, probably with alcohol, into handing them over to a white trader.

Is it, though? I think that's the weakest point. We assume that the Hopi who gave the masks to the white trader was weak, a betrayer, a thief to the tribe. Why do we assume this was so? Why do we deny him agency? Why do we assume that the culture of the Hopi 80 years ago was monolithic, and that no one might have found objections to it?

I would never claim to be an expert - beyond a few Native American Studies classes and some reading for pleasure, I would not say I know anywhere close to everything about that time period. But one of the things that struck me, particularly around that time period, is that it is when the fractions in many tribes, not just the Hopi, began. There began to be splits - between traditionalists and modernists, as it were, within the tribes. Between people who wanted to attempt to make a place in one world and those who wanted to make a place in another. You see it evidenced most visibly in treaties - one leader signed, another from the same group did not, and insisted the first signature was invalid. Rival claimants, where some were chosen or not based on their degree of loyalty to one tradition or another.

Why does it sound so unlikely that that individual Hopi member who first sold the masks may not have made masks themselves and sold them to traders, realizing that traders found them valuable? And if the Hopi claim is that they held property in common, and no one had the right to sell outside the tribe - did someone have the right to leave it? Many people from many tribes left for their own purposes. If said Hopi left the tribe for owning personal property, why should they not sell their creations? And what right would people have to take them back now?

I think this seems to be based on a romanticized and simplified view of history, where the monolithic culture was forcibly and unrighteously taken advantage of by outsiders.
posted by corb at 9:04 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]



Is it, though? I think that's the weakest point. We assume that the Hopi who gave the masks to the white trader was weak, a betrayer, a thief to the tribe. Why do we assume this was so? Why do we deny him agency? Why do we assume that the culture of the Hopi 80 years ago was monolithic, and that no one might have found objections to it?


Because we have the word of the democratically elected Hopi tribal council about what happened back then. For my part I see that as sufficient. At the time, Hopi kids were also being snatched and forcibly taken to boarding schools, and none of the Hopi were able to exercise agency individually or as a tribe, and their artifacts were being bought and or stolen by whites who had no language in common with the still mostly Spanish speaking Hopi. Their account of events back then, if factually correct, means that under American law in 2013, the masks belong to them.
posted by ocschwar at 9:11 AM on December 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


but on the other hand, they are likely to be cared for better and preserved for future generations in other collections (also actually seen and catalogued).

What a grotesquely arrogant suggestion.
posted by elizardbits at 9:14 AM on December 13, 2013 [16 favorites]


Because we have the word of the democratically elected Hopi tribal council about what happened back then

That is kind of what I mean, though. If, say, Congress had said something about a thing that happened 80 years ago - a "democratically elected national council", as it were - to assume that it was the truth would be generally considered laughably naive. But that's because we're exposed to a lot of their foibles, know them to be human and corruptible and with a vested interest in a lot of things that may not coincide with the truth, we would never believe them. We see them as complex humans and know that complex humans have complex desires and actions.

What makes the democratically elected Hopi council any different? Why do we assume that they are automatically noble and pure? It's Noble Savage stuff - because they were wronged and we think that they were in a state of nature, they must be inherently good and uncorrruptible in all ways. Just because it's a good stereotype doesn't mean it's not wrong.
posted by corb at 9:18 AM on December 13, 2013


Why are you trying to deny this democratically elected tribal council their tribal sovereignty, then.
posted by elizardbits at 9:26 AM on December 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


We actually do have to abide by and follow laws from eighty years though, we can't just say "Hahaha that dude was so rampantly corrupt/dumb/racist this law is not at all legit."
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:31 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


if the general treatment of native peoples in america is anything to go on, i'm guessing nagpra is based on more than "oh those poor noble savages, lets just believe everything they say" since we still haven't given them a fraction of what should rightfully be theirs. the idea that we're all supporting this out of some sort of noble savage idea is just as off point and gross as your white man's burden argument.
posted by nadawi at 9:37 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Why do we assume that they are automatically noble and pure?

I'm not assuming that. I will grant them the...what's the word...agency to make to act on behalf of the people who elected them.
posted by rtha at 9:37 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Why does it sound so unlikely that that individual Hopi member who first sold the masks may not have made masks themselves and sold them to traders, realizing that traders found them valuable? And if the Hopi claim is that they held property in common, and no one had the right to sell outside the tribe - did someone have the right to leave it? Many people from many tribes left for their own purposes. If said Hopi left the tribe for owning personal property, why should they not sell their creations? And what right would people have to take them back now?

Because this is what we've got, and because we are (we hope) operating from a pro-Indigenous standpoint. That means that if we're not certain of what happened eighty years ago, we don't decide to imagine a situation that goes against the expressed wishes of Hopi people today. I mean, we could make up a whole story - "maybe the masks were made for sale by a Hopi woman who had to support herself after running away from her abusive husband and who was later a radical lesbian union organizer unknown to history and therefore it was MORAL of her to make these masks and sell them and therefore it's okay to keep them" - and even if we load that narrative up with all kinds of stuff, it's still made up and it contravenes the wishes of Hopi people today and it does not serve anything we can point to as a greater moral imperative. (Like if this wasn't about sacred objects but about something that it was actually evil to posses which should be destroyed and not returned.)

A lot of this stuff doesn't fit well with standard juridical or capitalist logic because it's about stuff that did not happen under a shared standard juridical/capitalist framework. It's interesting in part because it puts pressure on capitalist and juridical frameworks.

Also, fundamentally, either we believe in some kind of native sovereignty or we don't. If we do, that means we give the masks back - even if we don't like what is going to be done with them, even if they're pretty, even if they'd be nice to have in a museum collection. People who are autonomous have to be free to do what they want, even if it's not what we want them to do.
posted by Frowner at 9:40 AM on December 13, 2013 [21 favorites]


We assume that the Hopi who gave the masks to the white trader was weak, a betrayer, a thief to the tribe. Why do we assume this was so? Why do we deny him agency? Why do we assume that the culture of the Hopi 80 years ago was monolithic, and that no one might have found objections to it?

Prior to the start of the auction, "The US embassy had asked for the sale to be suspended on behalf of the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes. The embassy wanted to give them time to inspect the objects and see if they had a claim to them. But EVE auctioneers said the sale was legal in France and proceeded under high security."

The Hopi -- and the US government -- seem to have far more interest in researching and understanding these artifacts and their history than the auctioneers do; that should probably tell you something about the relativity validity of the claims in question.
posted by cjelli at 9:40 AM on December 13, 2013 [20 favorites]


Nelson: "I'm confused after reading all the links. Are these objects masks of human scale that people would wear during ceremonies? Or are they kachina dolls, small statues representing the kachina that also are often wearing elaborate doll-sized masks? Are both sacred or are they treated differently by Hopi?"

If you click on the "Sacred Mask" link, it's actually a link to the auction catalog with pictures of everything. They are the masks.
posted by Deflagro at 9:42 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Right and for the next act, lets walk thro the museums in England and see how many of the exhibits needs to be returned to the rightful owners.


Ok.

Some of that is actually happening. Stuff was looted from Greece & Egypt, and some of it is being returned. The more the better - cultural artifacts, even if the culture no longer exists, are still better understood in context, and can provide additional meaning to the direct descendants of that culture that they can't provide to J Random Tourist.
posted by Devils Rancher at 9:45 AM on December 13, 2013 [10 favorites]


Yeah, I mean. It's a pretty specious argument to look at Bad Thing A and say "well no one has done anything about similar Bad Thing B so therefore Bad Thing A is somehow less important in the context of this discussion about Bad Thing A". It is especially unhelpful when the reality of the situation is that Bad Thing B is actually being addressed in the manner in which people would like Bad Thing A to be addressed.
posted by elizardbits at 9:55 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


I'd also like to add that major auction houses have proven to be crazy unscrupulous when it comes to cultural artifacts from virtually every continent and kind of bad provenance. I do not trust their motivations; they have acted in bad faith enough times that I admit to an immediate bias. The research they do is not designed to reduce their premiums.
posted by jetlagaddict at 9:56 AM on December 13, 2013 [8 favorites]


The embassy wanted to give them time to inspect the objects and see if they had a claim to them.

Don't auction houses already display provenance and such? At least, it was my understanding that the major houses did because they didn't want to pass stolen goods.
posted by corb at 10:08 AM on December 13, 2013


Let me recommend Michael Brown's 2004 *Who Owns Native Culture?* (Harvard UP) for those who want to understand the basics of this issue.

Let me also say, as an anthropologist who works directly in this area (including repatriating heritage materials to Hopi), thank you to the Annenberg Foundation.
posted by spitbull at 10:10 AM on December 13, 2013 [27 favorites]


Man, the white settlers and the armies that accompanied them sure were reliably unscrupulous when they took things like masks and children from the people they displaced/killed. But what if these masks were sold legitimately by a rationalistic actor in a free market? Just asking questions
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:10 AM on December 13, 2013 [21 favorites]


Don't auction houses already display provenance and such? At least, it was my understanding that the major houses did because they didn't want to pass stolen goods.

exactly one comment up
posted by Rustic Etruscan at 10:12 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


Also, honestly, in these days of super-sophisticated photography and other imaging, we don't actually need to have All the Artifacts to still provide a rich museum experience. It's nice to see things in the flesh - and it's important to be able to see some things in the flesh, I'm not advocating artifactless museums - but we don't need to see All The Things. Much better to return the ones that were acquired improperly and just have replicas or photos of those things that are not too sacred for photography.

Also, in terms of scholarship, I think it will be a healthier scholarship if non-Native scholars negotiate access with tribes. There's way too much scholarship about Native things that is done by white writers in a way that is either ignorant or seeks to invalidate Native opinions on a topic. (I'm not talking about "is this item 1000 years old or 2000"; I'm talking about seeking to invalidate Native scholars' theoretical and political claims - as happens in the otherwise interesting <>1491: Before Columbus book.)

The thing is, of course there are some contradictions in saying "hey, let's listen to this tribal council". The tribal council is composed of ordinary human beings, some of whom make mistakes or play politics. It's just that we have to listen to somebody, and if the choice is "auction houses", some nebulous claim laid by a "world museum community" and "the actual tribal council", I'm going to pick the tribal council every time.
posted by Frowner at 10:14 AM on December 13, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yes let's discuss the hypothetical actions of a theoretical person because the actual expressed desires of the elected representatives of the tribe are not as important as this person I have just made up for the sake of argument.
posted by elizardbits at 10:14 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Right, "kind of bad provenance" doesn't mean "what provenance they do have is not available", though. If half of the value is in the provenance - because who wants to spend 100,000$ for something they have to give back the next day - then it would make sense that they'd be willing to show it to potential buyers.
posted by corb at 10:14 AM on December 13, 2013


[corb you're kind of doing that you vs. everyone thing again. Maybe give the thread some breathing room?]
posted by jessamyn at 10:17 AM on December 13, 2013 [2 favorites]



The thing is, of course there are some contradictions in saying "hey, let's listen to this tribal council". The tribal council is composed of ordinary human beings, some of whom make mistakes or play politics. It's just that we have to listen to somebody, and if the choice is "auction houses", some nebulous claim laid by a "world museum community" and "the actual tribal council", I'm going to pick the tribal council every time.


Or if you care to dig into Google Books and old sources, you can find plenty of writing from the 1920's that confirms the masks were communal property used for ceremonies. Back then, the Hopi were held in contempt, and so that knowledge did not preclude picking out the strung out alcoholic Hopi on the edge of the village and getting him to steal a mask for you. It was par for the course.

Thankfully, that same contempt makes it pretty easy for us to confirm that the Hopi today are telling the truth abotu what happened.
posted by ocschwar at 10:21 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


then it would make sense that they'd be willing to show it to potential buyers.

Which does what good exactly when they can and do just make that shit up? Their interest is financial. See: The Getty Museum scandal, for example. That wasn't solely about auction houses, of course, but made-up provenance was at the core of it. Well, that and money.
posted by rtha at 10:23 AM on December 13, 2013


Right, "kind of bad provenance" doesn't mean "what provenance they do have is not available", though.

What I mean is that auction houses will often accept dodgy, forged paperwork that glosses over a "Swiss private collection" when it's clear an artifact first saw daylight in the last decade and probably still has dirt on it. They do not care about cultural heritage preservation and to be honest neither do most major buyers-- you'll notice museums get all the bad press but during all those dark years in the 80's, thousands of looted artifacts passed into private hands as well, as they do today (much of it admittedly through more underground channels, so to speak.) I am sure the seller provided a vaguely plausible cover story and documents.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:28 AM on December 13, 2013


Much better to return the ones that were acquired improperly and just have replicas or photos of those things that are not too sacred for photography.


I was actually just speaking with a NAGPRA museum person the other day about how 3D replicas will play out with cultural objects and human remains! It's a very hard subject to tackle (agency, copyright, sacred images, who owns the images/repro, validity of 3D copying human bones in dispute, probably a bunch of other things!) but it will be really interesting to see how it plays out.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:33 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]



I was actually just speaking with a NAGPRA museum person the other day about how 3D replicas will play out with cultural objects and human remains!


So, how long before the Pueblo Indians start to 3D scan their pottery to deter counterfeits?
posted by ocschwar at 10:36 AM on December 13, 2013


If you click on the "Sacred Mask" link, it's actually a link to the auction catalog with pictures of everything. They are the masks.

That's the link that confused me! Lots 1–20 all look like dolls and are labelled "Kachina". I may have stopped looking there. looking again I see lots 26–54 are the masks, labelled "Masque Katsina". (Then there's a diverse set of other Native American artifacts).

So is the objection is specifically to the sale of the masks, and not more generally the entire collection including the dolls? I'm sorry if that's a pedantic question, but I really did read all the links and am still confused.

I'd be grateful if someone could point to an article or book that explains more detail about kachina. The Wikipedia article is not so great, although the Hopi kachina doll article is more informative. This random page I found talks more about how the masks are sacred objects but I can't vouch for its correctness.
posted by Nelson at 10:38 AM on December 13, 2013


Someone actually did a study on Mesoamerican artifacts and found out that a lot of the pottery and stone sculptures on EBay were clearly fakes-- that the Internet was broadening the black market in some ways but also creating a renewed market for decent forgeries. Some people always want the real thing, though, no matter the cost.
posted by jetlagaddict at 10:39 AM on December 13, 2013


Some people always want the real thing, though, no matter the cost.

Precisely. And since all Pueblo pottery has irregular surfaces on the inside, it can all be 3D scanned, with the scans stored for public reference on the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center's website. People will pay a premium for knowing that if the pottery is scanned again, it will match a scan stored on file.
posted by ocschwar at 10:51 AM on December 13, 2013


Some people always want the real thing, though, no matter the cost.

If you want the real thing, go directly to the reservation & buy it from the people who make & sell the real thing. Contemporary pottery in the Southwest is a burgeoning art field, and it's getting better & more sophisticated all the time, in terms of the quality & diversity of the decorations. It's one of the many reasons I stay broke. I've bought a few contemporary pots from galleries, but would never trust the provenance of an antique pot to an ebay seller.

Also, CT scanners are awesome. The Vertebrate Paleontology Lab at UT has been doing some great work on fossils with theirs.
posted by Devils Rancher at 11:02 AM on December 13, 2013


In many ways, I would rather have a near-perfect 3-d replica of a van Gogh painting than the real thing--I get to enjoy the important textural aspects of the art without having to be a custodian of a priceless artifact. I have a very few original paintings by unknown artists which I enjoy, but if they were now famous and valuable, I'd be happy to donate (or sell, given my lack of retirement funds) them to organizations better positioned to share them and keep a reproduction for myself.
posted by maxwelton at 11:14 AM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


Native American "tribes" are (mostly) sovereign nations, just as a point of detail some comments above indicate may not be as widely known around these parts as would be ideal.
posted by spitbull at 11:28 AM on December 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


A family member found a Catholic relic for sale at a consignment shop. They did what needed to be done to assure it was appropriately returned to the Church. This is no different. It's about respect. Glad it ended well.
posted by childofTethys at 2:31 PM on December 13, 2013 [5 favorites]


“Hopefully this gesture is the beginning of a larger conversation to discuss and inform various communities about what is sacred and what is for sale,” concluded Tenakhongva. “Although we were disappointed in the decision of the court which allowed the sale to proceed, we will continue to work to protect our cultural heritage on behalf of our Hopi people and others. This issue extends far beyond us, and it is our hope that others who have seen our campaign will step forward and help to enlighten, educate and join us in protecting cultural heritage and value across the world."

This is fantastic news.

I think it's really hard - in many ways it would be best for the Hopi to have them, but on the other hand, they are likely to be cared for better and preserved for future generations in other collections (also actually seen and catalogued).

Which may be important in your value system, but is not important at all (at least for these particular objects) in the value system of the Hopi tribal delegation. The privileging of a value system that says all objects must be preserved in perpetuity and put on public display over one that has other ends in mind for the objects cannot be taken as a given.

Also, tribal museums and indigenous museum professionals are fully capable of making sure objects are "actually seen and catalogued" if they deem that to be an appropriate way of handling the object.

Who gets to decide?

In the US, a clearly delineated process developed by an Act of Congress and involving many expert participants. It's not at all as fuzzy and general a question as you try to make it here - a body of law very specifically deals with this kind of object. You should read the previous thread on the topic.

. I hope it doesn't set a bad precedent for greedy collectors.

This precedent was set long ago - this sale doesn't do something new in that regard. Everyone I spoke to about it hoped this would happen. Beyond the reach of American law, it's the only recourse.

Right and for the next act, lets walk thro the museums in England and see how many of the exhibits needs to be returned to the rightful owners.

Slippery-slope, sky-is-falling argument. This was what most American handwringers said when NAGPRA was past - museums would empty out, yadda yadda. It hasn't happened - the process has been selective, thorough, and well managed and museums typically benefit by a repatriation because of improved relationships with tribal members and greater knowledge about the rest of their collection. It is a net gain. There are a lot, a real lot, of ethical problems with most old museum collections. It is right that we work to solve them.

We assume that the Hopi who gave the masks to the white trader was weak, a betrayer, a thief to the tribe. Why do we assume this was so? Why do we deny him agency?

What you mean "we," Kemosabe? No one is blaming some unknown Hopi. Many situations are possible. The likeliest is that they were discovered and taken from tribal lands by someone not involved with the Hopi. If it was a member of the Hopi, we "deny that person agency" because they were acting beyond their individual authority and giving away items that were not theirs, but owned by the group as a whole.

One note about the whole "my aunt has a katsina and it's not sacred" thing - the market for tourist art has been around for a long time. The Hopi and others create objects specifically for the tourist market. Some are cheap and junky - but some are high-end and made with much of the same care that real katsinas are made. However, they are always missing something. What it is, we aren't always privileged to know. In some cultures, a weaving design or a sand painting pattern that is sacred will be done backwards or upside down, or a band of color will be removed - since the design is no longer complete, it doesn't have the spiritual power of the complete (really sacred) object. Sometimes it is a treatment that the object gets - prayer or a ritual. Sometimes it is a material that is left out completely - hair, or a certain color fabric. So just because you own something that seems similar does not mean that you own the same category of object that a group may have a spiritually based concern about. Objects made for sale and those made for ceremonial use are often different in important ways.
posted by Miko at 7:03 PM on December 13, 2013 [28 favorites]


The newspaper of the Hopi Nation ran an article about this sale on page 6 of the December 3rd edition of: The Hopi Tutuveni
posted by Anitanola at 10:11 PM on December 13, 2013 [3 favorites]


Vote #1 Miko for president of museum threads.
posted by Devils Rancher at 5:19 AM on December 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


Or at least Minister of Museum Affairs under the #1 quidnunc kid regime.
posted by Elementary Penguin at 5:55 AM on December 14, 2013 [4 favorites]


I am just one of a small but mighty shadow group of museum folk on MeFi. The MeFi Museum Mafia.
posted by Miko at 6:08 AM on December 14, 2013 [7 favorites]


MeMuMa for short, I hope
posted by elizardbits at 10:44 AM on December 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


If it were a modern art museum, it would be MeMoMuMa.
posted by hippybear at 10:52 AM on December 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


And if it were in Michigan, it could be MeMoMuMaMi.
posted by Miko at 10:57 AM on December 14, 2013 [5 favorites]


well, Miko dear president of MeMoMuMaMi, thanks for pointing out the upside down weave or other difference in objects thing. I hadn't thought of that and it makes complete sense. It's like some of the african tribal artifacts my mother bought when she lived there, an oxtail object for example had not "been loaded with spirits" as the seller told her, and that's why it was OK for her to buy it.
posted by dabitch at 3:37 PM on December 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Secret Bids Guide Hopi Indians’ Spirits Home: The NYTimes describes the Foundation's game plan for bidding on the artifacts and includes an interesting discussion of repatriation packing issues (like no Bubble Wrap.)

Choice quote: “It’s a good outcome for the Hopi but not the collectors, I suppose,” Mr. Leroy, the auction house owner, said of the foundation’s tally.

And an update on their intended use:
The Hopi have not identified their plans for these artifacts on their return, but they are not viewed as art objects or housed in museums. Typically, Katsinam are still used in spiritual ceremonies or are retired and left to disintegrate naturally.
Sam Tenakhongva, a cultural director for the Hopi: “No one should have to buy back their sacred property,” he said. “But now at least they will be at home with us and they will go to rest.”
posted by jetlagaddict at 8:26 AM on December 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


At one point, the owner of the EVE auction house, Alain Leroy, said he had noticed that one phone bidder was grabbing up the disputed Hopi objects and told an employee to check into it. Reassured that the buyer had wired money ahead of time and was legitimate, he says he nonetheless grew frustrated and even muttered aloud that he hoped the secret bidder would “leave some for the others.”

Dude. Come on.
posted by rtha at 10:24 AM on December 17, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah I admit that any lingering doubts I had about the auction house's views were pretty much destroyed by his comments. He was upset because why, the collectors he usually sells to were shut out? Because someone with money isn't sharing? I too get upset when things disappear from the market and there aren't a lot left for others, but I suspect our definitions of sharing are different.
posted by jetlagaddict at 11:58 AM on December 17, 2013


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