A Parisian auction house sold dozens of Hopi tribal masks on Friday, shortly after a French court rejected the Native American group's request to ban the sale.
The 70 masks for sale fetched €931,000 (about $1.2 million US), with the most expensive Mother Crow mask sold for €160,000 ($209,000 US) — more than three times its pre-sale estimate.
According to the Drouot auction house, one mask was purchased by an association that is returning it to the Hopis.
The Hopis, based in Arizona, had requested the masks be returned, saying the artifacts are sacred and house the spirits of their ancestors. Prominent figures, including actor Robert Redford and the U.S. ambassador to Paris, had supported the group's application to halt the sale.
Hopi representatives contend the items had been stolen and had demanded that auction house Drouot prove the provenance of the artifacts, which they believe were taken from a northern Arizona reservation in the 1930s and 1940s.
However, a French court ruled Friday morning that the sale of the brightly coloured masks could go ahead, saying the artifacts did not fit the legal description of human remains that would prevent them from being sold.
"Clearly they cannot be assimilated to human bodies or elements of bodies of humans who exist or existed," the court said in its ruling, which did agree the masks were "sacred" objects.
Sale of U.S. sacred objects not banned
In its ruling, the court also cited the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, U.S. legislation from 1978, saying that "no provisions banning the sale, outside the United States, of objects used in religious ceremonies or susceptible to be is applicable in France."
New York art collector Monroe Warshaw was among the buyers, purchasing two masks for about €28,000 ($36,500 US). He said he didn't believe the masks had been stolen from the Hopis and that the person who acquired them should be thanked for preserving them.
"How did they steal them? Did some antique dealer go into their house at night and steal them?" Warshaw said, adding that he will "probably not" ever return the masks to to the Hopis, who "didn't care for them in the first place — now they want them because they have a value."
Made of wood, leather, horse hair and feathers, the masks date from the late 19th and early 20th century. They were sold on behalf of a private collector.
Jean-Patrick Razon, French director of Survival International, an advocacy group that supports tribal peoples, expressed disappointment at Friday's sale.
"The Hopi people have been pillaged throughout their history. We despoiled their land. We killed them. We violated their souls and it continues. Now, their ritual objects are being put up for auction," Razon said.
Charles Rivkin, U.S. ambassador to France, had sent a letter to the French government and the auction house asking for a delay while the tribe’s concerns were addressed.
"I am saddened to learn that Hopi sacred cultural objects are being put up for auction today in Paris," he tweeted Friday.
Other supporters who blasted the sale while it was taking place were ejected from the auction room.
Disputes over provenance of artifacts
Auctioneer Gilles Néret-Minet has argued that the masks were sold by the native group's ancestors and that the case has no legal basis under French law.
There are numerous international disputes annually over the provenance of ancient artifacts. China lost out in a bid to block a Paris auction in 2009 of two Qing Dynasty bronze animal heads owned by Yves Saint Laurent.
Foreign nations routinely rely on international accords to retrieve antiquities from the United States, with museums in Boston and Los Angeles among those that have returned items to countries like Greece and Italy. However, Washington has no reciprocal agreements governing American artifacts abroad.