The secret bidder that bought 21 Hopi sacred objects and three objects that belong to the the San Carlos Apache during a Dec. 9 sale at a French auction house turned out to be the Annenberg Foundation. The organization plans to return the sacred objects to the Hopi and Apache tribes.
In a statement released by the foundation, Annenberg Foundation Vice President and Director Gregory Annenberg Weingarten said that while the objects have awesome power and beauty they are not trophies.
"They are truly sacred works for the Native Americans," Weingarten said. "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."
A French judge in Paris ruled on Dec. 6 that the Eve Auction House could go forward with the auction. In April, a French judge ruled similarly, letting the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou house auction 76 Hopi sacred objects for $1.2 million.
The foundation purchased the objects for $530,000 in order to return them to the tribes.
In the statement, Sam Tenakhongva, a Hopi cultural leader, applauded the Annenberg Foundation's actions.
"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," he said. "They simply cannot be put up for sale."
Lawyer Pierre Servan-Schreiber of the firm Skadden, Arps, acting on behalf of Survival International, an advocacy group which normally campaigns to stop indigenous people's lands from being stolen from them, and the Hopi tribe went to court Dec. 3 asking the court to stop the auction to no avail.
"Many individuals worked tirelessly on this issue for many, many months only to come away feeling disappointed following the ruling by the French court," said Servan-Schreiber. "Now we have reason to celebrate."
In the United States, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) protects similar items from sale. NAGPRA, enacted in 1990, details a process for the return of cultural items or objects of cultural patrimony to their rightful American Indian tribes and organizations. But the law does not have jurisdiction outside of the United States.
While France was the first to sign a resolution enacted by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) based on Article 12 of the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP), which supports the repatriation of such objects from other countries, this resolution is not binding.
Tenakhongva said he hopes the foundation's move will start a conversation about what can be sold and what should not be sold.
"Although we were disappointed in the decision of the court which allowed the sale to proceed, we will continue to work to protect our cultural heritage on behalf of our Hopi people and others," Tenakhongva said. "This issue extends far beyond us, and it is our hope that others who have seen our campaign will step forward and help to enlighten, educate and join us in protecting cultural heritage and value across the world.
"Our thanks are once again extended to Survival International and Mr. Pierre Servan-Schreiber for their efforts and to the Annenberg Foundation for their goodwill and generous gesture. Kwakwah (Thank you)."