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Paris auction house selling sacred masks refuses to stop lucrative business despite criticism

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PARIS — A Paris auction house has drawn widespread condemnation from the U.S. government and others since 2013 for selling off Native American artifacts to buyers from New York to Beijing. Still, it's not backing down.

Instead, the Drouot auction house has multiplied auctions of the items, considered sacred by North American tribes, and is raising millions of dollars from the lucrative business that would be illegal in the U.S. but has repeatedly been ruled lawful by courts in France.

On Wednesday, members from the North American Hopi tribe traveled to Paris from their territory in Arizona to protest against a new auction of eight of the tribe's Kachina masks. The Hopis believe the surreal faces, made from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers, and painted in vivid pigments of color, are the physical embodiment of their ancestors. They say their commercial sale could lead to the demise of their tribe, and want them returned.

Their plight has received support from actor Robert Redford and others. Tribal leaders and Arizona's members of Congress have asked U.S. law enforcement to try to stop the sales, but the U.S. government has no legal authority in France and French officials don't appear interested in changing their laws.

As such, Drouot sees no problem with the auctions, which have made it famous as the premier place globally to sell sacred tribal masks.

"It's legal. It's business. What's the problem?" asked auctioneer Alain Leroy. "The tribes are shocked, yes. But to each his own morality."

Eric Geneste, an author and Native American art expert who has worked with Drouot, expressed consternation over the recent controversies.

"Paris has seen these sales going on since the 2000s. It's become a sudden cause celebre, but people didn't care before. So why now?" Geneste asked.

He said sellers know the masks will sell for the highest prices at the French auction house.

PHOTO: Native American Navajo nation, Sam Tenakhongva, poses for the media outside Drouot's auction house prior to the contested auction of Native American Navajo tribe masks in Paris, France, Wednesday June 10, 2015. A Paris auction house has drawn widespread condemnation from the U.S. government and others since 2013 for selling off Native American artifacts to buyers from New York to Beijing.  (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)
Native American Navajo nation, Sam Tenakhongva, poses for the media outside Drouot's auction house prior to the contested auction of Native American Navajo tribe masks in Paris, France, Wednesday June 10, 2015. A Paris auction house has drawn widespread condemnation from the U.S. government and others since 2013 for selling off Native American artifacts to buyers from New York to Beijing. (AP Photo/Jacques Brinon)

"They have the opportunity to fetch exorbitant prices," he said. "There's no reason to stop. The objections are sentimental, not legal."

The Hopis, however, say they don't simply object to the sales for sentimental reasons.

"There is emotional trauma. These sacred objects are human beings. Drouot is creating harm to our people," said Hopi tribal member, Sam Tenakhongva, who flew to Paris Wednesday.

Used during religious ceremonies and dances to invoke ancestral spirits, the items are communally owned, rarely displayed and never supposed to leave the reservation. The Hopis say that they were long unaware of the existence of these Paris sales, living in isolation with little access to the Internet in their territory.

The masks going on sale Wednesday date from the late 19th century and early 20th century, and Hopis believe they were taken from a reservation in northern Arizona in the 1930s and 1940s.

Paris has a long history of collecting and selling tribal artifacts, tied to its colonial past in Africa, and to Paris-based groups in the 60s, such as the "Indianist" movement which celebrated indigenous tribal cultures.

Interest in tribal art in Paris was revived in the early 2000s following two high-profile — and highly lucrative — sales in Paris of tribal art owned by late collectors Andre Breton and Robert Lebel.

Experts say that since the other big European auction pole, London, has more of a reputation for selling Islamic art, Paris is the natural place to sell Native American artifacts.

Geneste argued that the elite in France, who have bought these items for decades, deserve some credit for safeguarding the fragile objects.

In the U.S., several laws prohibit the sale of Kachina masks, including the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act and the Bald and Golden Eagle Protection Act, because many of the masks use bird feathers, the U.S. Embassy in Paris said.


Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP

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