Paris auction house turns deaf ear to Native American appeals PRI May 27, 2016
The EVE auction house in Paris is getting ready to sell off a collection of historical and highly controversial objects. The collection notably includes a ceremonial war shield, masks, a shrunken head, a warrior jacket adorned with human scalps, ancient jewelry, and ceremonial stones. Most of the collection can be traced back to Native American Indian tribes including the Acoma Pueblo and the Hopi. US laws prohibit the sale of Native American ceremonial items, but those don’t apply in France. Native American tribal leaders are trying to stop the auction and start a dialogue to reclaim the ceremonial objects that were taken from native peoples more than a century ago. They held an emergency meeting at the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington earlier this week to condemn the auction as a violation of international human rights.If these objects were taken from their communities more than a century ago, they have been in somebody's collection since then. If they were out of the USA when NAGPRA was passed (this is where collecting history comes in), their retention and sale was perfectly legal. If however they were still in US collections when NAGPRA was passed (the US federal law, 'The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act', Pub. L. 101-601, 25 U.S.C. 3001 et seq., 104 Stat. 3048, enacted on 16 November 1990.), then their retention and sale comes under that law - but also US law enforcement. The trouble is that the law is rather vague when it comes to non-institutional collections and private property, and cases have rarely been prosecuted. If the objects now in France were exported from the USA after that date NAGPRA came into force, then the same applies. There is of course a 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property but that implies the US implementing the relevant articles (here Art. 6). The USA has refused to do this, so even if teh French wanted to help, there are no legal grounds for confiscating the seller's property once it is in France, and (despite what some Americans are suggesting) that is not because the French are lax in their lawmaking, but because the US has not created the laws and procedures which would enable them to act. It is teh USA which is at fault here, not the French.
So all the emotional stuff about this issue coming from the US is quite out of place, unless it is directed to those that can rectify the gap min US legislation.
So far the appeals from tribal leaders and diplomats, and those on social media, appear to have fallen on deaf ears. EVE has given no indication of backing down on its Memorial Day auction. EVE director Alain Leroy told the AP that “all the items proposed are of legal trade” and that “the public auction process allows the different tribes to acquire their past, and that is exactly what some tribes prefer to do, seeking efficiency and discretion.” These auctions have been an ongoing source of friction between the US and France for several years. But pressure may be mounting. This week, US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell called on the French government to help repatriate the items. “Auctioning off tribal sacred objects is extremely troubling not only because tribal law precludes the sale of these objects by individuals, but because items held by a dealer or collector are likely the results of wrongful transfer and may be for sale illegally,” she said.Well, let us see US Interior Secretary Sally Jewell stopping all and any auction of Greek, Roman, Bactrian, Persiabn, Egyptian, Coptic, Celtic, Viking, Islamic, Chinese etc etc etc antiquyities currently on sale by hundreds of US dealers with not a word of where they actually came from, because a lot of us think that these sales are indeed extremely troubling not only because source country law precludes the sale of these objects by individuals, but because items held by a dealer or collector are likely the results of wrongful transfer and may be for sale illegally. Sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander - even in the USA, surely?