The French Government Creates a Tragic Precedent in Refusing to Suspend a Recent Sale of Sacred Hopi and Navajo Objects

By Pierre Ciric

Published on July 22, 2014

The Holocaust Art Restitution Project ( “HARP”), based in Washington, DC, chaired by Ori Z. Soltes, recently denounced a “shameful” and “tragic” decision by the French “Conseil des Ventes” (Auction Houses Supervisory Board, hereinafter “Board”), an administrative agency in charge of regulating and supervising auction sales on the French market, which refused to suspend an auction sale of sacred masks owned by the Hopi and Navajo tribes.

On June 22, 2014, HARP initiated a judicial proceeding in France by requesting from the Board an administrative suspension of an auction sale scheduled for Friday, June 27, 2014, which involved sacred objects of both the Hopi and the Navajo tribes. Following a special hearing held in Paris on June 25, 2014, the Board, an arm of the French Government, refused to consider the provenance information for these objects, although the Board was presented with sufficient evidence that title for these sacred masks could have never vested with subsequent possessors. Furthermore, adding insult to injury, the Board held that the Hopi tribe, in fact ANY Native American tribe, has no legal capacity or standing to pursue any cultural claim in France. This dismissive denial of access to justice flies in the face of the progress made in international law by all tribes and indigenous peoples, as the French government had expressed its support for the legal status of indigenous peoples by endorsing the 2007 United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples (UNDRIP) at the U.N. General Assembly. The Board’s decision is disheartening from two perspectives.

First, Article 1-5-1 of the Board’s Code of Ethics for Auction Houses stipulates that auction operators must carry out appropriate due diligence regarding the provenance of objects being sold and the consignor’s right to sell the object. If the object is suspected of being smuggled or stolen cultural property, the code mandates researching international databases and contacting organizations dealing with illicit trade in cultural property. Further, if the object’s provenance is suspicious, the object should not be sold and authorities should be notified. Therefore, Article 1-5-1 requires due diligence in researching the provenance of objects for sale and halting the sale if the object’s provenance is suspicious.

However, in its decision, the Board refused to apply Article 1-5-1, even when faced with claims that some of the Hopi objects included in the June 27, 2014 auction were stolen. The Board held that the auction house acted in good faith although the auction house made only cursory requests to its consignor, and refused to force the auction house to perform any further due diligence. Nevertheless, this is the third consecutive auction for which the Hopi tribe had raised concerns about the provenance of such objects. U.S. statutes such as the Antiquities Act of 1906, the Archaeological Protection Act of 1979 and the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (“NAGPRA”) of 1990 demonstrate over a century’s worth of efforts to stem the illicit traffic in Native American cultural objects. In this context, it is incomprehensible to see how cursory requests were sufficient to establish good faith. Good faith is not analogous to conscious avoidance.

Second, the Board denied the Hopi tribe’s ability to bring a cultural claim by holding that it did not establish legal existence and capacity to sue. This holding insinuates that neither the Hopi tribe nor any Native American tribe has any legal existence under French law, and has extreme ramifications. The Board held that the Hopi tribe’s 1936 Constitution was “insufficient to establish the tribe as a legal entity under French law.” If the Board holds that the Hopi Constitution is lacking in establishing its legal existence, then no Native American tribe will be able to bring cultural claims on French soil. This decision should shock everyone’s conscience. The Hopi tribe has been federally recognized by the U.S. government pursuant to the Indian Reorganization Act of 1934. Recognized tribes have the legal authority to act pursuant to conditions established by the Congress. Within the U.S., Native American tribes have standing specifically for cultural repatriation claims under NAGPRA. Considering that U.S. courts define a foreign citizen’s standing by whether his home nation would define his legal capacity, it is shocking that France does not grant legal entities under U.S. law the same courtesy.

In refusing to suspend the June 27, 2014 sale of Hopi objects, the Board ignored the legal recognition that the U.S. gives to Native American tribes and refused to apply its own law governing provenance research of objects to be sold at auction. This decision creates a tragic precedent and sets the stage for France to become a safe haven for any cultural property originating with indigenous peoples worldwide.

The Author

Pierre Ciric is a New York attorney, the founder of the Ciric Law Firm, PLLC, and a board member of both the French–American Bar Association and the New York Law School Alumni Association. The Ciric Law Firm, PLLC represents the Holocaust Art Restitution Project (“HARP”) and its Director and co-founder, Ori Z. Soltes.

Note: References for the above article are available upon request.

Article picture: Pixabay


Law & Philosophy