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An auction house in Paris, France, Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou, plans to auction off 70 ceremonial katsina friends, improperly translated into English as “masks,” on April 12, 2013.

This sale not only violates law; it violates decency.  Mr. Gilles Néret-Minet, the director of the Paris auction house, has said repeatedly that he will not delay the $1 million sale.

Gilles Neret-Minet told the New York Times that the Hopi should understand the sale as an "homage" to them. "Even if it chagrins them, for the tribe this is not a negative, I think the Hopis should be happy that so many people want to understand and analyze their civilization."

This proposed sale has stirred outrage in the art, legal, and tribal heritage communities.

Below is an open letter to the auction house, in which Museum of Northern Arizona Director Dr. Robert Breunig voices his condemnation of this planned sale of significant religious objects, adding MNA to the public opposition to this sale by the Hopi and Zuni tribal members, the Heard Museum, and many individuals.

March 29, 2013

Étude Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou
8, Rue Saint-Marc
75002 Paris FRANCE

To the Directors,

I am the director of the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, Arizona. If the name of the museum is familiar to you, it is because this museum was founded by Harold S. Colton, my predecessor and the author of "Hopi Kachina Dolls," the book you have cited as an authoritative source in the listing of 70 Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Jemez “masques katsinam,” properly called “katsina friends” and advertised for an auction by your firm on April 12, 2013.

I am writing to request that you cancel this auction, withdraw the katsina friends from sale, and that they be returned by the “owner” to the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Jemez people. I have placed quotation marks around the word “owner,” because no one can “own” them but the Hopi, Zuni, Acoma, and Jemez people. Although katsina friends can be held and cared for by individuals, they belong to the communities from which they come or to specific ceremonial societies. Under tribal custom and law they cannot be sold or given away by an individual.

I can tell you from personal knowledge that the proposed sale of these katsina friends, and the international exposure of them, is causing outrage, sadness, and stress among members of the affected tribes. For them katsina friends are living beings; that is why they are called “friends” (kwatsi) in the Hopi language. The friends are loved, cared for, and ceremonially fed. They are a connection between the human world and the spirits of all living things and the ancestors. To be displayed disembodied in your catalogue and on the internet is sacrilegious and offensive. If one claims to value these katsina friends as “works of art,” one must also respect the people who made them and the native traditions that govern their use. And, as fellow human beings, it is my hope that you will offer understanding and empathy to the tribal people who are so deeply affected by this proposed sale. You cannot honor and value these katsina friends while dishonoring their makers. These are universal principles of cross-cultural human conduct.

On behalf of the Museum of Northern Arizona, I appeal to your sense of decency and humanity, and request that you terminate the auction and send these katsina friends to their proper homes among the native people in Arizona and New Mexico.

Robert G. Breunig, Ph.D.
Director, Museum of Northern Arizona

And here is the Official Hopi Tribe position statement:
Pursuant to ARTICLE VI –POWERS OF THE TRIBAL COUNCIL, SECTIION 1, (k) CONSTITUTION AND BY-LAWS OF THE HOPI TRIBE, the Hopi Tribe/Hopi Cultural Preservation Office, of Arizona, USA, strongly opposes any sale of Hopi religious objects, described by your auction house as “70 Katsinam masks of the Hopi Indians of Arizona…”. These Katsina friends are sacred objects and objects of cultural patrimony held under religious custody by the Hopi people.
It is our position that these sacred objects should have never left the jurisdiction of the Hopi Tribe. Also, no Hopi has any right or authority to transfer and sell these items currently in your possession as they are considered cultural patrimony.
Religious objects such as these, have no commercial value. It is our position that no one, other than a Hopi tribal member, has a right to possess these ceremonial objects.
You are urgently asked to take these item off your auction and inform your clients that the Hopi tribe does not approve of them being auctioned off. Rather, we urge you and your clients to make immediate contact with the Hopi Cultural Preservation Office to begin respectful discussions to return them back to the tribe.
You may also know that the country of France, was among the first nations to sign the United Nations Declaration on Indigenous Rights. Your auction house needs to respect this important international recognition of indigenous and Hopi rights.
Thank you for your consideration of our position on this matter.

And in fact, you can’t sell what you don’t own.

A judge has ordered a hearing for tomorrow, Thursday, April 11, 2013.

The US Embassy is involved now.

US Diplomat Asks Auction House to Delay Sale of Hopi Items
New York Times (blog)
“Given the ancestry of these masks and the distance between Paris and the Hopi reservation,” the embassy's cultural affairs minister, Philip J. Breeden, wrote on behalf of the Hopi Tribe last week, “requesting a delay seems reasonable to allow for a ...
See all stories on this topic »

We are fortunate in having Pierre Servan-Shreiber as pro bono counsel on behalf of the native people in this matter.

Please sign the petition:
 and invite your appropriate facebook pals to sign also.

Also, letters and emails of protest to the auction house are suggested.
Auction House email:
Auction House mailing address:
Cabinet Geneste
M. Eric Geneste
31bis rue du Faubourg Montmartre
75009 Paris
Telephone number #33 (0)6 72747142
TÉL. TEL. : 01 40 13 07 79 : 01 40 13 07 79
FAX : 01 42 33 61 94 FAX: 01 42 33 61 94


French President:
Président Hollande
Palais de Élysée
55, rue du Faubourg-Saint-Honoré
75008 PARIS
- e-mail :

Contact at U.S. Embassy in Paris:
Marie-Chantal Prépont
Office of the Minister-Counselor for Public Affairs
Embassy of the United States
2 avenue Gabriel, 75008 Paris
Tel : 33 (0) 1 43 12 28 98
Fax : 33 (0) 1 43 12 24 01
Email :
Embassy Home Page :

Originally posted to marthature on Wed Apr 10, 2013 at 12:32 PM PDT.

Also republished by Baja Arizona Kossacks, Invisible People, and Native American Netroots.

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Comment Preferences

  •  "You can't sell what you don't own." (5+ / 0-)

    I wonder if the auctioning parties could be prosecuted for receiving stolen goods under the UN Declaration of Indigenous Rights....

    Sadly, this is another chapter in a long despicable history of European cultural plunder for profit.  I hope everyone who reads this will sign the petition.

    •  The original disposition becomes almost moot, (0+ / 0-)

      as I understand it, if this info holds true - apparently, European courts are relatively favorable to the "innocent" purchaser.

      Thus, the auction - and any attempt to have a quick private sale - need to be prevented if only to keep the chance of recovery by the Hopi from becoming even more remote.

      I think having the State Department, perhaps working with some form of indigenous representation - one that helps push the reminder that tribal nations are alleged to be "sovereign" - could help apply pressure, and perhaps even serve as a precedent-setting law that could begin to help reverse the negative flow of national treasures by Native American nations.

      They are supposed to be sovereign; that's been a stickler in a lot of issues that the U.S. is still wrestling with.

      Hopefully, the Hopi can catch a break, and set a serious, strong precedent here.

  •  Another article worth reading... (5+ / 0-) Judge Steve Russell's column on the same subject, but with a different perspective.  

    The Indian Holocaust and the Hopi Nation

    Steve's one of the most articulate voices you'll ever hear on this.  
    Go read it now!

  •  Could you explain this statement? (0+ / 0-)
    This sale not only violates law;
    Specifically, what law that has purview over a French citizen or société in France would be violated?

    I'm not suggesting there isn't one.  Rather, it's odd that an auction in this day and age and in a modern nation would be held if it is against an applicable law with actual authority, so I'd like to understand better.

    I realize it's Wikipedia (with all caveats understood), but the Wikipedia page on the UN's Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples indicates that General Assembly declarations are not legally binding, so that must not be the "law" being referred to here. On the other hand, is Wikipedia (not surprisingly) wrong?

    Or is there some other law being broken?

    •  If it wasn't validly transferrable property (2+ / 0-)
      Recommended by:
      Ernest T Bass, hopi13

      in the first place, then they're auctioning off goods known to be stolen.

      Prayers and best wishes to those in Japan.

      by Cassandra Waites on Wed Apr 10, 2013 at 01:46:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

      •  Thanks, but that begs the question: (0+ / 0-)

        What law in France would conclude these items are not validly transferable property?

        I don't mean to be difficult, but it seems that this diary might be trying to apply either U.S. or tribal law (or a legally nonenforceable declaration) to a location that, from a legal perspective, may be subject to none of them.

        •  If ownership could not be transferred to the (2+ / 0-)
          Recommended by:
          hopi13, Ernest T Bass

          CURRENT claimed owner under the laws of the land where the property was acquired, then the sale at auction is just as invalid as any case of someone coming into that French auction house trying to sell an item they have an illegitimate claim of ownership to.

          Those sacred objects are communal property. Either they were stolen or the initial selling entity had about as much actual ownership of them as I have of the copper and bronze in the local WWII monuments - none. And even the metal thieves, daring as they are around here, won't touch those plaques and statues.

          Prayers and best wishes to those in Japan.

          by Cassandra Waites on Wed Apr 10, 2013 at 02:13:15 PM PDT

          [ Parent ]

    •  Some laws being violated (4+ / 0-)

      Auctioneer Gilles Néret-Minet has dismissed Hopi claims because “they rely on an article of the Hopi constitution which is not recognized in France because it is not a State."

      Actually, Hopi is a Nation/State, under US law.  It is a domestic nation. So much so that federal Indian law is very clear that Indian nations have a nation to nation status with the USA.

      M. Neret-Minet is not versed in constitutional law.

      From Tim McKeowan's article:
      Monsieur Néret-Minet might be interested in knowing that a number of US Federal laws may also be implicated in the proposed sale. Taking the auction house representative’s statement that the items were “legally” bought in the US on its face, we can assume that none of the masks – many of which have been identified by the Hopi Tribe as objects of ongoing historical, traditional, or cultural importance central to the tribe and which could not be alienated, appropriated, or conveyed by any individual – were obtained after 1990 from tribal lands or from a museum receiving Federal funds. Section 4 of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) made the sale, purchase, use for profit, or transport for sale or profit of any such cultural items a criminal offense. To date, 13 individuals have been convicted of trafficking items similar to those being offered at the Paris auction. Most were fined and the cultural items confiscated and repatriated. Several were also imprisoned. The list of convicted criminals includes mostly tribal members, intermediaries, and dealers in the American Southwest. Missing are the collectors who fuel the market, though several have stepped forward, including one reportedly connected to the Hollywood community, to aid the law enforcement and avoid prosecution themselves.

      Taking the auction house representative’s statement that the items were legally bought in the US on its face, we can also assume that none of the masks over 100 years old were sold, purchased, exchanged, transported, received, or offered for sale, purchase, or exchange in interstate or foreign commerce after 1979 in violation of any provision, rule, regulation, ordinance, or permit in effect under Federal, State, local, or tribal law. Section 6 of the Archaeological Resources Protection Act makes such transactions a criminal offense.

      Finally, to accept the conclusion that the masks were legally acquired under US law, we must assume that none of the masks were originally purchased or received from an Indian in Indian Country between 1796 and 1953. Section 9 of the Act to Regulate Trade and Intercourse with the Indian Tribes and to Preserve Peace on the Frontiers (and its successors) made such transactions involving articles of clothing a criminal offense. A court explained in 1911 that “the whole purpose [of section 9] was to prevent the Indian from improvidently parting with his indispensable articles, either to the government or to anyone else.”

      “Right of possession” is a key concept in US property law, as American museums, auction houses, and collectors are well aware. NAGPRA defines the term to mean possession obtained with the voluntary consent of an individual or group that had authority of alienation. However, the importance of right of possession, particularly as it applies to commerce with Indian tribes and their members, predates NAGPRA by over 150 years. An 1834 Federal law that remains on the books today clarifies that in disputes over the right of property involving an Indian and a non-Indian, the burden of proof rests on the non-Indian whenever the Indian makes out a presumption of title in himself from the fact of previous possession or ownership.

      This is us governing. Live so that 100 years from now, someone may be proud of us.

      by marthature on Wed Apr 10, 2013 at 02:03:25 PM PDT

      [ Parent ]

    •  Well, the material is stolen under US Law that (4+ / 0-)

      dates back to 1834.
      From indian Country Today by  C. Timothy McKeown Read more at

      The situation for Monsieur L.S. is more problematic. A self-described connoisseur with 30-years collecting experience in the US, he has be have been well aware of the issues involved. To summarize: 1) all of the masks are dated to the period prior to 1953, meaning that their original acquisition was not just reprehensible to the tribes involved, but a violation of the Federal restriction on acquisition of articles of clothing from Indians; 2) under US legal principles, no subsequent purchaser of the masks acquired good title since good title was not conveyed by the original thief; 3) under US law, the burden of proof rests with the non-Indian whenever the Indian makes out a presumption of title in himself; and 4) the most recent acquisition of the masks by Monsieur L.S. may have also violated specific criminal provisions of ARPA and NAGPRA.
  •  Hopis are very upset over this. (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassandra Waites, Ojibwa

    I live and work on Hopi and yes, they are deeply saddened by this auction.  The material was never made as objects of art but as sacred katsina friends.  This is extremely disrespectful.

  •  As to this quote from above: (2+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:
    Cassandra Waites, Ojibwa
    Gilles Neret-Minet told the New York Times that the Hopi should understand the sale as an "homage" to them. "Even if it chagrins them, for the tribe this is not a negative, I think the Hopis should be happy that so many people want to understand and analyze their civilization."
    Hopis are real tired of being analyzed by people who will never have a clue as to what Hopi is about.  They are not lab rats or tourist objects.
  •  If the auction is completed, (1+ / 0-)
    Recommended by:

    then recovery becomes far less likely.

    Here is part of the relevant, current legal morass as I understand it.

    If the auction is prevented, along with any kind of private sale (particularly if expedited to attempt to avoid recovery), then it may be more likely that the articles can be recovered.

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