Out Of Many: Religious Pluralism in America
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Neret-Minet Auction and the Commodification of Sacred Art

In the spring of 2013 the French auction house, Nėret-Minet, offered for sale “one of the largest auctions of Hopi art ever” including a number of pieces more than one hundred years old. The Hopi/Puebla attempted to stop the sale; they argued that the artifacts were taken illegally and should not be sold because they were taken when missionaries and others “found them unattended in shrines and on altars along the mesas of the Southwest. Others were confiscated by missionaries who came to convert the tribe in the late nineteenth century. Some were sold by tribe members. But even those sales were not legitimate, Hopi leaders say, because they may have been made under duress, and because the tribe holds that an individual cannot hold title to its religious artifacts – They are owned communally.” In contrast, the head of the auction house claimed, “This sale is not just a business transaction but a homage to the Hopi Indians (my italics).” The French judicial association supported the auction house and the auction was held.

Slide show of the main artifacts for the auction from the New York Times.

What is interesting for our debate are the reactions of readers of the original article. Most of the reactions primarily supported the Hopi/Puebla argument, but the supporters were split between thinking of the artifacts as religious items and as art commodities.

Here are some of the responses to the original article (I have kept the original spelling and syntax):

  1. Charleen Touchette: There is no way that Sacred Objects can be legally sold. These objects are communal property owned by the tribe and can not be legally alienated from them by any individual, The original sellers of these Hopi Sacred Objects did not have title, therefore, no subsequent purchaser can attain good title. These Sacred Objects should be returned to the Hopi immediately. Charleen Touchette Author of "Repatriation of Sacred Objects" in NATIVE ART IS WORLD ART curriculum (Minnesota Center for Arts Education) and NDN ART (Fresco, 2003).
  2. Rachelle: I am Hopi, and although I do not practice the Hopi religion I know the sacredness of these items. My father is a Hopi Kachina artist and I have lived on the third Hopi Mesa and I understand the difference between art and sacred items. I feel people get confused when they see a Kachina DOLL for sale or a handmade bow and arrow or jewelry. These things have great importance in the Hopi religion. But they are not items that are worshiped or considered sacred. The Kachina is sacred. The Kachina DOLL is not. They are given to children throughout their lives to help as teaching tools. This is why it's okay to sell Kachina DOLLS and other items. Items that are used in the village during dances or in the Kivas (a sacred temple) are sacred and special. Some things are okay to share with others such as Kachina DOLLS. And some things are considered sacred, such as items used in the dances and Kivas. People need to remember the that Hopi's and all American Indians have their culture and religion intertwined. That is why so many outsiders get confused or angry when tribes sell some art and other items are considered sacred. Just ask an informed tribal member what's okay Please never assume, that's were contention happens. If you want to learn, we would love to share.
  3. Sfff: (note commodification of the materials) Los Angeles Where's the Kickstarter campain for this? Surely, if they can raise 3 million in 2 days for a Veronica Mars movie, we can raise 1 million for the Hopi people to get their artifacts back! People on this board already want to donate!papabear I wonder what the reaction would be if they were auctioning off items of great significance to the christian church or the vatican that were sold by congregations in distress.... Sad that the fact that there are so few Hopis makes this a difficult issue, while the outcry over selling the wall with the last supper would cause a major uproar!.... perhaps we should try to get a more evenhanded justice going.
  4. Nikki Portland, ME: The plethora of comments here urging the Hopi to raise the money to buy their own artifacts back is astounding. If you were robbed of an heirloom, would your reaction be to seek out the thief in order to negotiate a payment? Any smart thief would look to rob you again. And what then are the Hopi to do about the next international auction of their heritage items? Raise more money every time this happens? These comments are not surprising, as they place all of the responsibility on the Hopi, a people who have been historically victimized, and none of the blame on the wealthy auction house, who won't even issue proof of a legitimate sale. (April 5, 2013) last accessed 6/11/2013 6. Rachelle (see above) Arizona And Matz, some people just sell things because they can. They will tell you that a medicine man blessed it or other made up things. It's important to research the museums or galleries beforehand to make sure they are authentic pieces or artists of that tribe. The Heard Museum, Pueblo Grand, and many galleries in Sedona are legit places to buy art from in Arizona.
  5. lajollasc4 la jolla, ca: These masks are not the property of the Hopis. They are primitive artifacts, and should be in great museums - whether in the US or France. May as well ask collectors and museums all over the world to return every Andy Warhol to NYC.

There were lots of responses which took umbrage at this analogy of Andy Warhol and Hopi/ Puebla objects, but it puts into stark relief the question of the artist as a commodity like Elvis Presley or Marilyn Monroe or Campbell’s Soup in which we consume the image.

Questions to Consider

  • Whose art is this?
  • Are these sacred artifacts that should have been left at the shrines? If so, how do we repatriate these? Or are these art objects to be sold to the highest bidder?
  • Are these objects handled differently than religious objects from, say, the Vatican, as papabear suggests? Why might there be these differences in how we view the objects?

Works Cited and Consulted

Tom Mashberg, "Hopis Try to Stop Paris Sale of Artifacts" New York Times. April 3, 2013.