Navajo tribe buys back sacred masks at Paris auction

image copyrightAFP
image captionThe Navajo masks (not pictured) were among dozens of Native American artefacts for auction in France

Members of the Native American Navajo tribe have purchased seven sacred masks at auction in France after failing to stop the contested sale.

The masks, believed to have been used in healing ceremonies, were among dozens of Native American objects for sale at the Paris Drouot auction house.

The sale, which netted more than $1m (£639k), went ahead despite efforts by US government officials to stop it.

The auction house argued the sale was in accordance with French law.

The Navajo masks have been described by Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim as "living and breathing beings" which should not be sold commercially.

The auction also included the sale of several Pueblo masks adorned with horse hair and bone, as well as dozens of Hopi Kachina dolls. Some 20 dolls were sold.

The US embassy in Paris is said to have asked Drouot to suspend the sale in order to determine if the items were stolen from the Navajo and Hopi tribes, but the auction house declined.

Several Navajo officials travelled to France to purchase the items at auction, while a lawyer representing the Hopi tribe described the sale as sacrilegious.

"Hopis were opposed to buying back their artefacts as they did not want to engage in the auction," Pierre Servan-Schreiber told the Associated Press news agency.

Navajo Nation spokesman Deswood Tome meanwhile argued it was up to tribal leaders in the future to determine how to handle the sale of sacred items outside the US.

"Buying these masks here today is a precedent that we've set," he said.

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