U.S. foundation buys Hopi religious masks at auction to return them to the tribe

An American foundation bought nearly two dozen Native American artefacts and will return them to the Hopi tribe in Arizona, which had mounted legal challenges to their planned sale by a French auction house.

The Annenberg Foundation said on Wednesday it had paid $530,000 for the 24 artefacts sold by Eve Auctioneers in Paris on Monday. Twenty-one will be returned to the Hopi Nation and three to the San Carlos Apache, the Los Angeles-based charitable foundation said in a statement.

“These are not trophies to have on one’s mantel; they are truly sacred works for the Native Americans,” said the foundation’s director, Gregory Annenberg Weingarten. “They do not belong in auction houses or private collections.”

The Hopi – who still live in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau in northeastern Arizona – consider both the masks and a series of dolls offered at the auction to be sacred. Made of animal skins, fabric and other natural materials, they represent messengers to the gods and the spirits of ancestors and natural forces. The Hopi do not display such masks in public.

The artefacts sold at auction largely dated from the late 19th and early 20th century. One, an impressive turquoise blue “Crow Mother” mask flanked by two crow-feather wings, sold for 100,000 euros ($136,800).

The Hopi lost a legal challenge in Paris last week against holding the auction, allowing it go ahead despite a last-minute appeal from the U.S. government to delay it.

The Hopi’s French lawyer, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, also bought a mask to give back to the tribe.

Monday’s auction was the second auction this year of Hopi artefacts in France.