Hopi Katsinam Auction in Paris: A Conversation with the Auctioneer

Dominique Godreche
4/9/13

On Friday, April 12, the Parisian auction house Néret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou plans to sell 70 Hopi katsinam, commonly referred to as masks, to the highest bidder. This sizable auction of objects considered sacred by the Hopi has created quite an international furor, with Hopi and other Natives, as well as museum curators, calling on the auction house to cancel the auction and return the pieces to the Hopi.

Auctioneer Gilles Néret-Minet has found himself at the center of the controversy. He has received a stream of angry correspondence, and even threats. He spoke with an ICTMN reporter on the condition that his words not be changed. We have attempted to keep the responses below as close as possible to Néret-Minet’s original French answers.

Does all this buzz about the sale change your plans?

No – because France is a country of rights! All the mail in the world will not change anything. I am answering through my lawyer; and either I get the auction, or I do not. But if not, it would be a reconsideration of the nature of private property in France, which would have a huge impact on this issue. These objects are not “protected” in France, or in Europe. Only in the United States; and particularly in those two states, Arizona and New Mexico, where the Hopi tribes live. Also, those masks are only sacred when used in a dance. They are not sacred afterward. They are put aside, or destroyed. So the Hopi want to claim these objects, and we don’t know where they will go -- they might just disappear. This is unbelievable! If they can claim these objects now, then African art is over, and the Cluny museum [of medieval objects, in Paris] would give back all of its pieces to the churches. If we are questioning the principle of “religious art,” we should question the entire notion of art.  I think this issue should be addressed to the Americans, and that is what the New York Times article says: There is no bi-national agreement of restitution. That’s it!

What is your understanding of the tribe’s claim regarding their ritual objects?

Well, it is the same as if the Bretons here in France would ask for us to return their headdress.

It seems like there is a disagreement between the notion of art, and religious or ritual art?

If you question and revalue “religious art,” then we would have to stop selling any religious piece: sculpture, jewelry, painting, architecture, etc., as it includes all of those categories. So I will not cede to pressure, unless it goes through the judicial system. My lawyers told me that I do not have to give back these collections: it would be as if, during an auction at Drouot, your neighbor is opposed to the sale because he feels that it represents a profanation of the church.

We have to remain rational: France is a country of rights; we are not the 51st state of the United States. This collection is totally exceptional. Many museums are interested, as those masks are more than a hundred years old. So stop the aggression!

I have received about 20 mails of protest a day, all similar, with the same presentation. We do not even know who is writing them, or with whom to communicate to negotiate. And I do not have the slightest knowledge about these organizations: Are they democratically-elected, do they represent the people -- or are they part of a feudal system?

But you must have some indication of origin, globally, regarding these claims?

These claims, with no judicial foundation, come from the tribe, and their friends -- like a professor of a university -- who protest.

Why are those claims not valid?

On a legal basis, they are not valid. On a personal, emotional, subjective, or religious basis, they might be valid, but I cannot do anything about that. I have a mandate from the seller, in France, who has owned this collection long before NAGPRA was passed. And I sell, that is it! I know everything about how he got it; it is only a part of his collection, as he is a great lover of Native art, and has a huge collection. I did not get it from a flea market seller who was getting rid of stolen goods! I care about Native arts, even if I have not done many sales.

How can you be assured of the origins and authenticity of those pieces, and how do you  react to suggestions by some Native experts that those pieces should be vetted by Native-recognized experts?

…Ah, yes! Now they say I am selling fakes! Why such a fuss, then, if I am selling fakes? Andy Warhol too, was accused of having fake masks. That is not a dumb question – but if we knew everything there would be no more polemics, then! (Laugh) Well, we will see them in the Branly museum [France’s foremost museum of indigenous art], that is all! People say all kinds of things, and I get threatening letters. Do you think I really like having to hire security? It seems like the Hopi lobbies are stronger than the Africans! 

So, all this must be a shock for you?

No, the same thing was going on with the Pierre Bergé auction [of Hopi items]. As soon as it is becomes significant, they try. But there are state-to-state agreements, concerning human remains, like the Maori, in New Zealand; and I would never have taken those, as I understand the point of those agreements. But masks are sacred only when used during a dance! That is what my experts told me: They are a relation between the spirit world and the dancer, and after the dance, it is over.  Moreover, some of these masks may be sacred, like the Crow Mother [one of the items on sale], but not all of them are -- but they want them all back. Then they are shocked at the money issue: but some Hopis are in jail because they have sold masks that should be returned. [For more information, see today’s column "You Can’t Convey What You Don’t Have" by C. Timothy McKeown --Ed.] And those masks were sold by the Native Americans themselves!

If we follow this logic, then the British museum should return the friezes of the Parthenon, and the Louvre the Italian paintings, and so on.

How do you know those masks are no longer sacred after they are used in a dance?

I have experts [Eric Geneste (cabinet Mickeler Geneste) and the consultant Daniel Dubois], and they are among the best -- they know. According to them, as long as these items are active, they are sacred; but afterwards, it is over. The sacredness is like electricity, and afterward they have been unplugged.  And my experts make a distinction between the sacred ones, and the common ones. I think the people who asked me for all the masks did not consider that question. They want them all, and there should be a balance. 

Is this your first Native American sale?

No, I did sell some kachinas before, but had no problem, as they are educational dolls. But for this sale, I cannot do anything. If I stop the sale, I have fees, my client puts me on trial, and I am condemned. The only way to stop an auction is through a legal procedure. But I will write a communiqué, as I have received threats, and now I do not even want to open the mails. I have had enough: “you are a thief, a crook, we will break you”, etc.

Is the seller aware of all that?

Well, I do keep him aware -- and he will see how much the security bill is climbing! But he is French. Americans know about all that, and the regulations, but the other buyers do not, so I inform them that those pieces cannot be legally possessed in the US.

Will the controversy of this auction discourage future Native American auctions?

This is the only and last big sale of Hopi masks from the USA that will take place in Europe, ever. But we will continue to sell the objects of other tribes, like the Plains Indians, and the tribes who are not attached religiously to their objects.

Is there a big market?

Yes, quite big.

So to be clear -- all this controversy does not change your position?

You know, intimidation… The least you can do is ask for an appointment, and visit. But threats? No. To all those threatening emails, I have the same answer: No.  They come from specific groups, Native Americans, Americans, from the US, and continue with some Europeans. It is political, and it’s been going on for two months.

But don’t you think that the conflict continues because of this different idea of art? For you, it is just “art”. And the misunderstanding comes from a lack of knowledge about this culture.

Well, yes, it is a very unknown culture here in Europe.

But there is no misunderstanding. It is just a small group of people thinking that those pieces are theirs, that the objects have been stolen. And we have to remain rational -- if they want them, they can buy them or propose a solution. But the only thing I received are demands of restitution, to return the pieces to the USA.

They mention their pain… if it is a matter of pain, I would do what I could to diminish it. But these objects are in France, they belong to a French collector today; and except for three of them, these are not sacred masks. They are common masks.

Then you maintain that the tribe’s position is not legitimate?

It is extremist! And legally, France is not a province of the United States! We cannot apply North American law in France. Moreover, before asking for the return of items from France, they should ask the American museums to return their pieces. The same with the American collectors. Because all those collections come from the United States, from the 19th century: they are not from the '70s.  Many Native Americans sold their masks, and so did the missionaries who were converting them.

How do you feel about the comparison of these Hopi items with art looted by Nazis in World War II?

Oh yes, I did receive some letters like that, where I was treated in an extremist way. But it has nothing to do with this issue: Hopis used to sell their masks to the tourists! And now about a dozen Hopis are in jail for having sold masks.  Like in Africa, all that comes down to business.  If the Natives would deal with experts, they would have exhibitions in the great museums, and that would honor their culture.

So for you, the problem with these types of sales is that they are not structured or controlled?

There is no protection in this field, and that is what the New York Times article stated. So, let’s hope that part of this collection will go to German and French museums.

You need to be logged in in order to post comments
Please use the log in option at the bottom of this page

POST A COMMENT

Comments

Didier's picture
Didier
Submitted by Didier on
Is this man really french like me?Then we don't share the same values.I have seldom read something so stupid.Did he really understand what his experts have told him?

Ernest Taho   Hopi/Yavapai's picture
Ernest Taho H...
Submitted by Ernest Taho H... on
His experts don't know crap about being Hopi or Native.... These items are sacred all the times regardless of being used or set a side. These items have purpose and need to be taken care of properly in which the auctioneer nor the museum know nothing about... You can just look and see that they are sad and hungry so they what and need to come back home....

Laurel Poleyestewa's picture
Laurel Poleyestewa
Submitted by Laurel Poleyestewa on
I read this article. I am a full blood Hopi. I can see that this person who is having the auction can never understand where the Hopi is coming from. It all has to do with money. Yes, members of our tribe have sold these friends, all in the name of money. Yes, we are a very small tribe. But these "experts" that this person is relying on are not EXPERTS! These friends do not ever ever get 'unplugged". Does Jesus become unplugged when a cross is put in a closet? I question whether these experts ever visited our land. Being an expert from books is very different from seeing, hearing, and actually living Hopi. It is sad that is has come to this. But they are the dominant society. Feed our friends and care for them with love, as we do for all our friends we have here at home.

Laurel Poleyestewa's picture
Laurel Poleyestewa
Submitted by Laurel Poleyestewa on
I read this article. I am a full blood Hopi. I can see that this person who is having the auction can never understand where the Hopi is coming from. It all has to do with money. Yes, members of our tribe have sold these friends, all in the name of money. Yes, we are a very small tribe. But these "experts" that this person is relying on are not EXPERTS! These friends do not ever ever get 'unplugged". Does Jesus become unplugged when a cross is put in a closet? I question whether these experts ever visited our land. Being an expert from books is very different from seeing, hearing, and actually living Hopi. It is sad that is has come to this. But they are the dominant society. Feed our friends and care for them with love, as we do for all our friends we have here at home.

Steve Kopacz's picture
Steve Kopacz
Submitted by Steve Kopacz on
The auction house has not the faintest glimmer of understanding of what they have, or the role of the "kwatsi" in Hopi life. Many of these are not even utilized by "dancing katsina", so to purport they are "sacred" only within a certain context is ignorant at best. The kwatsi are alive to the Hopi, they are revered, fed, and cared for. They are their ancestors, they are their life, they are their future.

Navajo Man In Phoenix's picture
Navajo Man In P...
Submitted by Navajo Man In P... on
Gilles Néret-Minet has clearly stated what is known and what it is. There is no need to bully or intimidate him or his business. If you read what he has said, clearly, you can see, he is well within his rights as a person and a business. The moral and other stances taken are no valid. It's how museums and the United States government view Native Americans too. Leave the man alone and let him do what he and thousands of others do everyday.

Didier's picture
Didier
Submitted by Didier on
As a french,I feel outraged by the stupid and insane comments M.Neret Minet is making,which certainly don't reflect our own moral principles.I know the experts he is referring to,and I just can not believe for a second that they said such absurds things;either he is lying or he did not understand.I hope reasonable collectors and museums will refuse to buy,if the sale is not cancelled.At least,I will not buy.

Daryl Sakeva's picture
Daryl Sakeva
Submitted by Daryl Sakeva on
I am a member of the Hopi tribe and these items are not art, they are religious items that r not for sale, I read all the comments and you all still don't get it, these are religious items that are kept for generations to use in all our ceremonies, it is not to be sold, please i am asking to return these items, it is a religious set back to our nation if they are not returned, they r spirits that can not be taken out. If you all have a heart and respect one's religion you would all send these items back, Peace, love to all.

dana hoecker's picture
dana hoecker
Submitted by dana hoecker on
they should be returned home and then everyone should leave the Hopi alone and let them live as they want to and without interference.

Parrotboy's picture
Parrotboy
Submitted by Parrotboy on
The Judge's ruling and the continued auction is a sad day for all Hopi people that remain traditional, especially the Parrot Clan who these "Friends" and not "masks" originally belong to. I am a full blooded Hopi and from the Parrot Clan. Although sadness fills my heart, I feel sorry for this individual for the stance he takes on this issue. It is true some Hopis have sold these and were wrong in doing so, but the fact is this is not "art" but our identity as Hopis and me as a human being and should NEVER be sold for any price. I would like to educate this man if I had the chance and maybe he would see the signifigance to us. This holds true for all the tribes that hold items of cultural and religious signifigance. But as we all know in this day and age, money is the number one factor for selling out another person or peoples values. The only interest he has is that of personal gain. But with that always comes a price and he will have to deal with it someday. So I ask all that have made comments to forgive and not hold a grudge against this person due to his arrogance. Being angry only makes us stoop down to his level. For we as Hopis are supposed to be peaceful and cannot control certain things in life. Although many have tried to stop this auction and bring our Katsinas home, I ask that we pray for their well being even though they are not home with us where they rightfully belong. I am grateful to one buyer who has said he would return to us what he had bought. And maybe others will follow suit and do the same. I appreciate your time if you have read my comments and may you all be blessed as you go about your daily lives. Kwak-Kwi (Thank You)
11