At a moment when the art auction market appears to be booming, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to worry that, when a grouping of Hopi artifacts went on the block in France over the objections of the tribe and the American government, the results would be the permanent parting of the pieces from the people who see them as sacred, all so they could be curated as curiosities or flipped for a profit. After all, a similar auction had gone ahead as planned earlier this year, despite protests both within the auction hall and outside of it.
But as the New York Times reported on Monday, the story has a relatively happy ending. The Annenberg Foundation, which has never gotten involved in repatraiting art before, approved up to $1 million to buy the Hopi masks that are the repositories for beings known as Katsinam, who have played a significant role in Hopi religious practice as far back as 1325 CE, as well as some objects of Apache origin, so they could be returned to the United States.
The foundation wasn’t the only good actor in the auction, though it enjoyed considerable success. The Times’ Tom Mashberg explains:
Members of the Hopi tribe were also watching the sale online from Arizona. Unaware of the forces at work on their behalf, they said they became dispirited as item after item sold. Sam Tenakhongva, a cultural director for the Hopi, said when he turned off his lights at 2 a.m., he felt he was saying goodbye to the spirits embodied in the headdresses.
The foundation, however, had enjoyed marked success in the bidding. By the end of the auction, it had spent $530,695 and bought all but three of the 24 Hopi objects and the three other Apache artifacts that the foundation had sought.
And one of the three, a Hopi headdress featuring antelope antlers, had been bought by Mr. Servan-Schreiber on behalf of a couple, Marshall W. Parke, of the private equity firm Lexington Partners, and his wife, Véronique, who had instructed him to obtain what he could as a gift to the Hopis.
It’s understandably frustrating for the Hopi that the items made it to auction at all–as Tenakhongva told the Times, “No one should have to buy back their sacred property.” But it’s fortunate that the Annenberg Foundation had the discretionary funds to approve an experiment like this. And it’s maybe even more impressive that the will existed within the organization to return them to the Hopi, given that the masks aren’t necessarily going to be curated or even preserved, according to Hopi religious practice.
The Annenberg Foundation’s intervention in the auction is just one move that raises interesting questions about the future roles of similar organizations in protecting and repatraiting art. As I explained earlier in December, a vision of foundations riding to the rescue became part of the conversation about Detroit’s bankruptcy proceedings:
As my colleague Alan Pyke reported last month, U.S. District Judge Gerald Rosen, who was mediating the bankruptcy proceedings, suggested that the city could raise money from foundations to buy the art and place it in a trust for the city. That wouldn’t be the worst outcome, but it seems more like a pleasant fantasy than an actual option that’s on the table. And creating a new foundation would raise complicated governance questions for the Institute. Would the new organization have to approve of loans of the Institute’s collection to other institutions for exhibition purposes? And given that the City of Detroit owns the Institute, even though it isn’t providing funding to the museum, would other counties that have supported the Institute through tax levies have a claim on the money the new foundation paid for the collection? These are big, difficult questions, but without any foundations stepping up to volunteer to implement Rosen’s plans, they’re mostly hypothetical.
Such an intervention in Detroit’s financial and artistic future would require vastly more money than the Annenberg Foundation’s entry into the French auction: you’re not going to scratch $200 or $300 million, some of the figures that were being bandied about in that conversation, out of a discretionary fund. And it’s hard to imagine that the Annenberg Foundation could spend that sort of money and simply turn the art over to a new organization without some say in what happened to it. For reasons like these, the dream of raising capital from Detroit’s art collection either from a foundation–or more unwisely, from private art collectors, dismantling one of the city’s cultural assets–appear to be dead for the moment.
That doesn’t mean that dreams of foundations sweeping in to preserve art collections or underresourced groups’ cultural heritage will die. But the best response to those dreams isn’t necessarily for the Annenberg Foundation or any of their peers to don superhero costumes whenever the need arises, but rather a more difficult and sophisticated conversation about what art should enter the international market, and which, if any, should stay out of it. And when art that belongs in the second category is transferred to the first, we need to ask how to allocate resources so organizations and cities can compete with the market. The katsinam auction isn’t the first reminder, and it won’t be the last, that shame is a limited weapon where covetousness and potential for profit are concerned.