As protesters stood outside the Drouot auction house with banners reading "Sacred Masks, Sacrilegious Sale," some 25 vividly colored Kachina masks went under the hammer inside.
Though a judge ruled last week that the sale of the artifacts is legal in France, the American Indian Hopi tribe says the artifacts represent their ancestors' spirits and cannot be sold as merchandise.
Objects sold quickly, including the sacred "Crow Mother," a menacing Hopi mask with billowing black plumes, that was bought at nearly twice its expected value at $171,000.
"This is the event of the year. It's right here, right now. This is the American Indian sale of 2013," auctioneer Eric Deneste said light-heartedly. His tone, and the almost comical corncobs scattered for decoration around the masks, were in contrast to the very serious presence of security guards positioned around the room in case of disruption.
The Katsinam masks look like surreal faces made from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers and are painted in vivid pigments of red, blue, yellow and orange. Unlike commercial art, the Hopis argue, these objects are akin to tombs and represent their ancestors' spirits, nurtured and fed as if they are the living dead.
The U.S. Embassy made a request for delay on behalf of the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes, to allow them time to come to France and identify the artifacts and investigate whether they have a claim to the items under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property. Both France and the U.S. are signatories to the treaty.
"No one is saying we should empty museums of their artifacts," said Pierre Servan-Schreiber, a lawyer who represents the Hopi tribe. "But these objects have a special significance for a people that still exists. When will someone realize that not everything can be sold and bought?"
Servan-Schreiber bought a Hopi mask to return to the tribe.
Last week, the Hopi tribe took the auction house to court to try to block the sale. The tribe lost, with the judge highlighting that France does not possess laws to protect indigenous peoples.
"The Hopi tribe was able to argue their case before a judge (last week) and was rebuffed," said a short statement from the auction house. It added, without elaborating, that it had exchanged letters with the San Carlos Apache tribe, whose objects are included in the sale alongside a Zuni tribe altar and Native American frescoes and dolls.
The tribe has said it believes the masks, which date back to the late 19th and early 20th century, were taken illegally from a northern Arizona reservation in the early 20th century.
"What shocks me is that people ask the Hopis to prove these things are theirs," said Maria White, a coordinator for the nongovernmental organization Idle No More and a member of the Kogui tribe in Colombia. "How can you think these objects have been taken legally? It's certain they're stolen."
The objects sold quickly.
One mask set off a phone-bidding war and sold for 31,000 euros ($42,300). A Zuni altar, which used to belong to late Hollywood actor Vincent Price, sold for $137,000.
After the court ruling, David Killion, the U.S. ambassador to UNESCO, the U.N. cultural agency, co-wrote an open letter to argue the Hopis' case. He called for countries, including France, to tighten "laws at a national level to impede profiteering in culturally significant sacred objects."
In a similar dispute in April, a Paris court ruled that such sales are legal, and around 70 Hopi masks were sold for some $1.2 million, despite vocal protests and criticism from the U.S. government and actor Robert Redford.
The Associated Press is not transmitting images of the objects because the Hopi have long kept the items out of public view and consider it sacrilegious for any images of the objects to appear.
Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP
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