PARIS (AP) — Is there such a thing as too sacred to sell? That's the question a French judge could answer Friday in a potentially landmark decision in Paris on whether dozens of Native American tribal masks can go up for auction.
The masks are undoubtedly striking pieces of art — surreal faces made from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers — and painted in vivid pigments of red, blue, yellow and orange. But to Arizona's Hopi Indians they are also stolen spiritual vessels, and they want them back.
The case has drawn ire on both sides of the Atlantic, with art experts, Native American activists, and even Robert Redford weighing in on who is the rightful owner. In an 11th hour appeal Thursday evening, the U.S. Ambassador to France sent a letter to both the French government and the auction house asking for a delay to the sale.
A lawyer for the Hopi Tribe and the association Survival International argued at a hearing Thursday that the items are "unsellable" under French law because of their spiritual value. He called for the auction to be suspended so that their origin can be determined.
But auctioneer Gilles Neret-Minet at the Drouot auction house says a ruling to stop the sale of artifacts owned by an anonymous French citizen would have trans-Atlantic repercussions, and potentially force French museums to empty out their collections.
"If we lose this case, there will be no more sales of objects of indigenous art in France," Neret-Minet said. "I guess that museums will be obliged to give back their collections. It's major ... It would be terrible for the art market in general."
The 70 objects, mainly Hopi, went on display for the first time as the court battle kicked off on 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 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.
If the judge rules in the auction house's favor on Friday, the items will go up for sale within hours.
Neret-Minet insisted the auction would be "a beautiful homage" to the Hopis. But Hopi representatives don't think that's enough. They want the auction house to prove the masks weren't stolen — through certificates of ownership, for example.
They say the masks have a special status, and are far more than just art: They are their dead ancestors' spirits.
"This is not just an art object, artifact or something that you hang on the wall or wear on the day of a wedding. This is where the spirit of the dead communicates with the living," said the tribe's French lawyer, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, outside the courtroom Thursday. "Under French law, you cannot sell or purchase a tomb."
He said the masks were never sold or given away, and "clearly" belong to the Hopis: "It's impossible for those masks to have left the tribe without (someone) violating some law."
The tribe's chairman, Le Roy Shingoitewa, said only a Hopi has the right to possess them.
"Given the importance of these ceremonial objects to Hopi religion, you can understand why ... they (Hopis) regard an auction not as homage but as a desecration to our religion," said Shingoitewa in a letter written to the auction house last week.
The Hopi camp are hoping an individual or organization will step in to buy back the objects for the tribe, since they don't have enough money.
Hollywood star Redford on Thursday wrote a letter protesting plans to sell off the masks, calling the proposed sale "sacrilege" — and even a "criminal gesture." Redford condemned the looming auction in Paris and warned of "grave moral consequences" if it went ahead.
Describing himself "as a close friend of the... Hopi culture," Redford wrote that the masks "belong to the Hopi and the Hopi alone."
Thomas Adamson can be followed at Twitter.com/ThomasAdamsonAP
Associated Press writer Felicia Fonseca in Flagstaff, Arizona, contributed to this report.