The largest Native American tribe in the American Southwest from Arizona carried out a peaceful “raid” 5,000 miles from their homeland, bidding successfully for the return of seven sacred masks at a disputed auction of tribal artefacts in Paris. On Monday.
The stolen masks – believed to have been used during Navajo religious and “healing” ceremonies in the late 19th century – are regarded by the tribe as living beings.
Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim said the objects were not art but “living and breathing beings” that should not be traded commercially. “They are sacred masks … and unfortunately they ended up here. Whether that is legal or illegal … we don’t know. What we do know is that they are for sale,” Jim said.
The U.S. Embassy in Paris had asked Drouot to suspend the sale to allow Navajo and Hopi representatives to determine if they were stolen from the tribes. But Drouot refused, arguing that the auction was in accordance with their law and that a French tribunal had previously ruled that a similar sale was legal.
The sale went ahead despite efforts by the U.S. government and Arizona’s congressional delegation to halt it.
The objects for sale at the Drouot auction house included religious masks, colored in pigment, that are believed to have been used in Navajo wintertime healing ceremonies but that generally are disassembled and returned to the earth once the nine-day ceremonies conclude.
The Native Americans won the auction which totaled 929,000 euros ($1.12 million) also included dozens of Hopi kachina dolls and several striking Pueblo masks embellished with horse hair, bone and feathers; despite a bidding war with private French art collector, Armand Hui.