PARIS — When diplomacy and a plea to return sacred ceremonial masks to an American Indian tribe in the United States failed, officials from the Navajo Nation traveled to the Paris auction house selling the items and started bidding for them.
They fended off a French art collector Monday, winning seven masks for more than $9,000. Navajo Vice President Rex Lee Jim said the Navajo delegation was unable to determine the exact provenance of the artifacts but said they had to face the reality of the auction and buy them.
"They are sacred masks ... and unfortunately they end up here. Whether that is legal or illegal ... we don't know," said Jim, a medicine man who offered prayers to the masks that embody Navajo deities. "What we do know is that they are for sale."
The Navajo Nation took a different approach than its Hopi neighbor in northeastern Arizona, which has seen losses of ceremonial items at auctions in France that were deemed legal to private collectors.
The objects for sale at the Drouot auction house included religious masks, colored in pigment, that are believed to be used in Navajo wintertime healing ceremonies. There were also dozens of Hopi kachina dolls and several striking Pueblo masks embellished with horse hair, bone and feathers, thought to be from the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
The U.S. Embassy in Paris 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 the law — and that a French tribunal had previously ruled that a similar sale was legal.
Sales from the auction totaled 929,000 euros ($1.12 million).
The Hopi saw the sale as sacrilege and did not travel to Paris for the auction, said Pierre Servan-Schreiber, a lawyer representing the tribe. Only a member of the tribe has the right to possess the items that represent the spirits of their ancestors, tribal officials have argued.
"Hopis were opposed to buying back their artifacts as they did not want to engage in the auction," Servan-Schreiber said.
Hopi Chairman Herman Honanie said he was appalled by the latest sale.
The Navajo Nation delegation was authorized to spend up to $20,000 to retrieve the masks that typically are disassembled after a nine-day ceremony and returned to the earth, said Deswood Tome, a spokesman for the tribe.
Jim said the objects were not art but "living and breathing beings" that should not be traded commercially. He was set to return to the United States on Tuesday, with the masks to be shipped later to the tribe.
French art collector Armand Hui bid for several masks at the auction but told The Associated Press he backed down when he saw that tribal members had come in person to buy them.
"I wanted to respect that," he said.
Tome said it would incumbent upon the leaders of the Navajo and Hopi tribes to discuss how to approach any future sales of sacred items in foreign countries.
"If there are religious items that are sacred in the future, the leadership will have to determine what steps they will take," Tome said. "Buying these masks here today is a precedent that we've set."
The Associated Press is not transmitting images of the objects because both the Navajo and Hopi have strict rules against recording and photographing ceremonies featuring the items that otherwise are kept entirely out of public view.
The Navajo Nation initially included a photo of the masks in a news release but later replaced the photo with one of Jim, saying it was a mistake. The Hopi tribe considers it sacrilegious for any of the images of the objects to appear.