PARIS (AP) -- A contested auction of dozens of Native American tribal masks went ahead Friday afternoon following a Paris court ruling, in spite of appeals for a delay by the Hopi tribe, its supporters including actor Robert Redford, and the U.S. government.
About 2-1/2 hours after the court announced its decision, auctioneers began selling dozens of brilliantly colored masks made of wood, leather, horse hair and feathers across town at Druout auction house.
The auctioneer argued that blocking the sale would have tremendous implications and potentially force French museums to empty their collections. Arizona's Hopi Indians want the masks returned, insisting they have a special status and are more than art — representing their dead ancestors' spirits. Hopis feed and nurture the masks as if they are the living dead.
In its ruling, the court noted the Hopis ascribe "sacred value" to the masks but "clearly they cannot be assimilated to human bodies or elements of bodies of humans who exist or existed" — the sale of which would be banned in France.
The court also alluded to the 1978 U.S. legislation, the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, and wrote "no provisions banning the sale outside the United States of objects used in religious ceremonies or susceptible to be is applicable in France."
Advocates for the Hopis expressed dismay.
"This decision is very disappointing since the masks will be sold and dispersed," said the tribe's French lawyer, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, outside the courtroom. "The Hopi tribe will be extremely saddened by the decision, especially since the judgment recognizes that these masks have a sacred value. The judge considers that the imminent damage (to the masks) is not sufficiently strong."
Jean-Patrick Razon, France director for Survival International, an advocacy group that supports tribal peoples, shared the disappointment.
"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.
The Hopis' lawyers filed a request with the Council of Sales, the French auction market authority, to suspend the sale, Servan-Schreiber said, but a spokeswoman for the Council of Sales told The Associated Press that it had no legal grounds to intervene.
U.S. Ambassador to France Charles Rivkin tweeted Friday in French: "I am saddened to learn that Hopi sacred cultural objects are being put up for auction today in Paris." On Thursday, he sent a letter to the French government and the auction house asking for a delay to allow better consideration of the tribe's concerns. Hollywood star Redford wrote a letter calling the proposed sale "sacrilege" — even a "criminal gesture."
Gilles Neret-Minet, of the Neret-Minet Tessier & Sarrou auction house behind the sale, said he would stop short of any triumphalism over the ruling, "but I'm happy that French law was respected."
"I am also very concerned about the Hopis' sadness, but you cannot break property law," he said. "These are in (private) collections in Europe: they are no longer sacred. When objects are in private collections, even in the United States, they are desacralized."
Neret-Minet said the auction house has received "serious threats" ahead of the auction, and declined to comment further other than to say: "But remember this is an auction open to everyone. If anyone wants to come and buy them, they can."
The 70 objects, mainly Hopi, went on display at Druout for the first time as the court battle kicked off Thursday, offering a rare public glimpse of such works in Europe. They date to the late 19th century and early 20th century, and are thought to have been taken from a northern Arizona reservation in the 1930s and 1940s. The most expensive single mask is estimated to be worth at least 50,000 euros ($66,000).
The masks are undoubtedly striking — surreal faces made from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers, and painted in vivid pigments of red, blue, yellow and orange. Hopi representatives contend the items were stolen at some point, and wanted the auction house to prove otherwise.
The Associated Press is not transmitting images of the objects because the Hopi have long kept the items out of public view and consider it sacrilegious for any images of the objects to appear.
Disputes over art ownership, demands for restitution, and arguments over whether sacred objects should be sold are nothing new. Take the continuing row between the British Museum and Greece over the Elgin marbles, which Scottish diplomat Lord Elgin removed from the Parthenon in the 19th century. Greece wants them back; but opponents fear that would open the floodgates, forcing Western museums to send home thousands of artifacts.
Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP
Jamey Keaten contributed from Paris.