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Cultural Property at Auction: The Trouble with Generosity

Written by  Matthew H. Birkhold

Last December, the Annenberg Foundation revealed itself as the anonymous bidder that purchased twenty-one Native American artifacts in a much disputed Paris auction. The items at the center of the dispute included artifacts from the Hopi Nation and San Carlos Apache tribe, among them twenty-four Katsinam—mask-like objects that the Hopi consider imbued by divine spirits. According to the Hopi, the artifacts, which date from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, were stolen from their reservation and should not be treated like commodities. Nevertheless, the sacred items were sold by the Estimations & Ventes aux Enchères (EVE) auction house as part of a larger lot of sixty-six Native American artifacts, generating $1.6 million.

To great popular acclaim, the Annenberg Foundation, which spent an impressive $530,000 to secure the twenty-four Katsinam, announced that it would return the artifacts to the Hopi Nation and San Carlos Apache tribe. Given the sum involved and the cultural importance of the objects, the action has been celebrated as magnanimous and the Foundation lauded as a cultural hero. Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to deny the Foundation’s generosity. And it seems difficult to gainsay the widespread sentiment that this represents a “happy ending” for the tribes involved. After all, it seemed the artifacts would be lost forever; both litigation and diplomacy had failed to stop or even delay the auction. A French court had dismissed the Hopi’s lawsuit attempting to block the sale, and EVE all but ignored pleas from the U.S. embassy and David Killion, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (“UNESCO”), to delay the auction to allow the tribes to identify and investigate the provenance of the contested objects. Under the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, to which both France and United States are signatories, the tribes may have had justiciable claims to the artifacts.

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