Why a charity and an anonymous bidder are returning 'old friends' to the Hopi

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This story is based on a radio interview. Listen to the full interview.

Audio Transcript:

Marco Werman: This next story draws a line between Paris, France and the Hopi Nation in Arizona. A collection of Hopi tribal masks when to auction this week in Paris, even though the Hopi had retained a lawyer to stop the sale. The lawyer did not succeed and yesterday the masks were sold, but there's an interesting twist. The winning bidders now say they'll return the sacred masks due to the Hopi. Pierre Servan-Schreiber is the lawyer who's been working on behalf of the Hopi tribe. In fact, he helped coordinate the bidding.

Pierre Servan-Schreiber: There were two bidders actually -- one American citizen who asked to remain anonymous, and the Annenberg Foundation. The American bought one of the sacred masks and the foundation bought every other mask except for one.

Werman: So even the auctioneers, I gather, didn't know about the intentions of the buyers.

Servan-Schreiber: No, they did not. And they did not know that we were coordinated, so as not to bid against one another.

Werman: So at first, no justice for you because the masks did go to auction, but ultimately a kind of sense of justice. What does this leave you thinking?

Servan-Schreiber: It leaves me thinking that it's very nice outcome for the Hopis, but it's not the end of the story. At some point there will be the need for a law which will recognize that these kachinas are not to be purchased or sold.

Werman: Describe them for us. I mean why are they so culturally valuable?

Servan-Schreiber: First of all, the Hopis never see them as we did in the auction house, naked with the price tag on them. That is extraordinarily offensive to them. They only see them worn by dancers during sacred dances. And of course, they just don't wear a mask. They are entirely covered with paints, bird feathers, eagle feathers with those kachinas, with pine tree branches, leaves. Why are they so sacred for the Hopis? The legend goes that when going from one world to another, the Hopis believe that humanity has gone through several worlds already...during the last exodus from one world to another, the kachinas, the spirits of the ancestors who were unhappy with the unethical behavior of man, took their children. And the Hopis were very sad to see their children go, so they requested the spirits not to do that again, in exchange of what? They would host sacred dances in which the spirits would be represented by the kachinas. These kachinas are the way the Hopis communicate, not only with the spirits of their ancestors, but it's really the communication between the living and the un-living world, between what is, what was and what will be. It really goes at the heart of their existence.

Werman: So these very meaningful masks, how'd they end up in a Paris auction house in the first place?

Servan-Schreiber: I think it's very simple. Electors know that a sale like this would not take place in the US, it would be impossible, so they turned to the next large center of arts in the world, which is Paris. I should also mention that the Hopis were described for the first time by Claude Levi-Strauss, a very well-known anthropologist, who had a great admiration for the Hopis.

Werman: Right, I mean there's a kind of fascination with Native American tribes in France. How did you feel when the hammer came down yesterday?

Servan-Schreiber: When I went to pick up mine, or rather the one that I acquired for this anonymous bidder, I went into the warehouse behind the auction room and I saw almost all of the kachinas all stacked in one rack. And I thought to myself I know that's the foundation, and they did an excellent job because I think we pretty much bought them all. I was happy about that.

Werman: Pierre Servan-Schreiber, a lawyer for the Hopi Indian tribe in Arizona, thank you very much.

Servan-Schreiber: Thank you.

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