Hopi tribe masks fetch record prices at Paris auction

A mask from a native American tribe in Arizona has fetched 160,000 euros (£135,000) at auction in Paris, more than three times the pre-sale estimate.

Friday's auction of 70 masks fetched some 930,000 euros after a legal challenge to stop the sale failed.

Lawyers for the Hopi tribe had asked for the auction to be cancelled on the grounds that the masks must have been stolen from the tribe.

It considers them sacred and blessed with divine spirits.

Auctioneers, however, say the masks had been bought and sold in the past and were legally acquired.

They said blocking the sale would have implications for the trade of indigenous art and could potentially force French museums to hand back collections they have bought.

'Criminal gesture'

The masks - mysterious looking faces fashioned from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers, and painted in a vivid array of colours - are spiritual artefacts thought to have been taken from a reservation in northern Arizona in the 1930s and 40s.

To Hopi Indians they are sacred - tools through which the living can communicate with the spirits of the dead.

The sale of sacred Indian artefacts has been outlawed in the United States since 1990 - but the law does not extend to sales overseas.

Protesters repeatedly disrupted Friday's auction. As the Mother Crow mask was sold, one protester shouted: "These are sacred things!"

One mask was bought by an association to give back to the Hopis, said the Drouot auction house.

One buyer who acquired four masks said he was delighted to be adding to his collection of Hopi artefacts.

"One day I might give some back," the collector, who declined to be identified, told Reuters news agency.

"But if it had not been for collectors in the 19th Century who contributed to the field of ethnology, there would very little knowledge of the Hopi."

Two museums in Arizona and members of the Hopi tribe had demanded the sale be called off.

The actor Robert Redford has also been supporting the 18,000-strong Hopi tribe and describes himself as their "close friend".

Before the court ruling, he wrote that the masks "belong to the Hopi and the Hopi alone".

"To auction these would be, in my opinion, a sacrilege - a criminal gesture that contains grave moral repercussions," he said.

"I would hope that these sacred items can be returned to the Hopi tribe where they belong. They are not for auction."

The legal proceedings were brought by the organisation Survival International, which defends the rights of tribal peoples.

The US Ambassador to France, Charles Rivkin, has also said he is "very concerned" about the sale.

However, auctioneer Gilles Neret-Minet of auction house Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou had warned that a ruling to stop the sale could potentially force French museums to empty out their collections.

"If we lose this case, there will be no more sales of objects of indigenous art in France," he said before the court ruling.

The Paris court sided with the French auction house, saying there were no grounds to stop sale because the items were acquired legally by a French collector during a 30-year stay in the US.