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Mystery Bidder At French Auction Plans To Return Sacred Hopi Items

An anonymous bidder paid $530,000 for 24 Native American items that went on the block this week in Paris. The auction went ahead despite an appeal by the Hopi tribe to cancel the sale of the items it considers sacred. The U.S. Embassy asked for a delay, and the sale was challenged in court — unsuccessfully.

On Wednesday, it emerged that the mystery buyer was the Los Angeles-based Annenberg Foundation, which said in a statement that it planned to return 21 items to the Hopi Nation in Arizona, and three items to the San Carlos Apache.

"These are not trophies to have on one's mantel; they are truly sacred works for the Native Americans," Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, the foundation's vice president and director, said in a statement. "They do not belong in auction houses or private collections. It gives me immense satisfaction to know that they will be returned home to their rightful owners, the Native Americans."

The Annenberg statement said Weingarten decided to step in and purchase the items after a French judge issued a ruling last week rejecting an attempt by the advocacy group Survival International and the Hopi to block the sale.

The decision was praised by Hopi leaders.

"Our hope is that this act sets an example for others that items of significant cultural and religious value can only be properly cared for by those vested with the proper knowledge and responsibility," said Sam Tenakhongva, a Hopi cultural leader. "They simply cannot be put up for sale."

Here's more on the story from The Associated Press:

"It was a happy ending for the Hopi tribe following a series of legal setbacks in efforts to delay the sale of the masks, arguing that they represent ancestral spirits and shouldn't be sold. The tribe has said it believes the masks, which date from the late 19th and early 20th century, were taken illegally from a northern Arizona reservation in the early 20th century.

"The U.S. Embassy had also called for a delay so that tribal representatives could come to France to identify the artifacts and investigate whether they have a claim under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, to which both France and the U.S. are signatories."

The sale marked the second time this year that Native American items were auctioned in Paris. Around 70 Hopi items were sold for some $1.2 million in April. As NPR's Tanya Ballard Brown wrote at the time, the "auction [stirred] up controversy on both sides of the Atlantic."

Indeed, the Hopi consider also consider images of the items to be sacrilegious; the AP said it had decided not to transmit photographs of the auctioned items.

And in a story on All Things Considered in August, Laurel Morales of Arizona member station KJZZ, said her work on the story "tested me as a reporter and as a member of my community."

Laurel noted that tribal leaders consider the use of the terms "mask" or "artifact" to describe the objects as offensive. Instead, she noted, "the Hopi call the [sacred objects] Katsina friends, and they are treated as such. The Hopi people use them in ceremonies and dances to call upon the spirits to bring them rainfall, healing and protection."

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