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As protesters jeer, Hopi tribal masks auctioned in Paris

PARIS--In a chaotic auction repeatedly interrupted by protests, dozens of Native American tribal masks were sold Friday after a French court ignored the objections of the Hopi tribe and the U.S. government.

The total tally was 931,000 euros (US$1.2 million), with the most expensive, the “Mother Crow,” selling for 160,000 euros (US$209,000) — more than three times the pre-sale estimate.

Of the 70 masks up for sale, one was bought by an association to give back to the Hopis, the Drouot auction house said.

Advocates for the Hopi tribe had argued in court the masks have special status and are not art — they represent their dead ancestors' spirits. The Hopis, a Native American tribe whose territory is surrounded by Arizona, nurture the masks as if they are the living dead.

But the auctioneer insisted any move to block the sale could have broad repercussions for the art market in general and potentially force French museums to empty their collections of indigenous works.

The Katsinam, or “friends,” masks made up nearly all of the 70 lots that went on display at the auction house, offering a rare public glimpse of such works in Europe. The masks are surreal faces made from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers, and painted in vivid pigments of red, blue, yellow and orange.

They date to the late 19th century and early 20th century, and are thought to have been taken from a reservation in northern Arizona in the 1930s and 1940s.

Hopi representatives contend the items were stolen at some point, and wanted the auction house to prove otherwise.

As the auction got underway two and a half hours after the court ruling, Jo Beranger, a 52-year-old French filmmaker, yelled as auctioneers showed a 1970s image of a Hopi leader in tribal beads and holding a mask.

Beranger, told The Associated Press that the Hopi leader had since died, and it was “a scandal” and “shameful” that he was shown. Security guards escorted her out of the auction hall.

About a dozen protesters from a French group that sides with the Native Americans gathered outside — one waving the flag of the American Indian Movement.

In Arizona, Hopi Chairman Le Roy Shingoitewa said that the judge's decision to let the sale go on was disappointing but not unexpected.

“It's a whole new legal field that many tribes have not truly experienced,” he said. “So I think the Native American tribes in the United States are going to have to start looking at this area of being able to try to protect our cultural areas as well as sacred sites.”

Shingoitewa said the tribe did not attempt to bid on the objects Friday. He said he was saddened to know that many people will treat the objects as art when they have deep religious significance to the tribe and are never up for display on the reservation.

“Maybe in their hearts, they may feel that they can return them back to the place they started and the home they had,” he said. “That would be my plea.”

After the “Mother Crow” mask dating from about 1880 was sold, a protester shouted “this is not merchandise, these are sacred beings!” before being pushed out of the room by a security guard and breaking into tears.

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Cambodia fest in NYC weaves art over history
This picture taken on April 5 in Paris shows the “Chakwaina” sacred mask of Arizona's Hopi Native American tribe. (AFP)

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