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Secret mission saves tribal cultural artifacts

LOS ANGELES – They were two veteran emissaries for a Los Angeles-based philanthropy, tasked with staging a clandestine operation to rescue a series of Native American spiritual artifacts from public sale half a world away.

This month, Annenberg Foundation staffers Allison Gister and Carol Laumen found themselves making anonymous telephone bids at a Paris auction to secure rarities considered sacred by the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes in Arizona, including exotic masklike visages that had been lost, some say looted, over the last century.

For 80 fast-paced minutes, the women huddled in Gister’s office, eyes on their computer screens, phones held to their ears. Secrecy was crucial so as not to drive up prices, or hopes. Not even the tribes knew.

Annenberg Foundation grants manager Allison Gister, left, and Annneberg Space for Photography Ventures general manager Carol Laumen helped rescue tribal artifacts. (Robert Gaughier/Los Angles Times)

Annenberg Foundation grants manager Allison Gister, left, and Annneberg Space for Photography Ventures general manager Carol Laumen helped rescue tribal artifacts. (Robert Gaughier/Los Angles Times)

Directing a Paris auction house worker to place her bids using philanthropy money, Gister, whose French amounted to an 18-month crash course, yelled “Go! Go!” It was often mistaken by the worker as “No! No!”

Laumen, a Canadian fluent in the language, urged: “Don’t say ‘Go! Go!’ Say ‘Oui! Oui!’ ”

It worked. Twenty-one kachina masks for the Hopis and three sacred gaan headdresses for the Apaches were purchased for a total of $530,000 and will soon be returned to the two tribes.

“I sat here with tears of happiness,” Sam Tenakhongva, a Hopi who works with the tribe’s cultural office, wrote of the artifacts in an email to the foundation after the auction. “To hear that they will be coming home and sooner than I ever imagined is really quite remarkable.”

Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, vice president of the foundation, did not claim outright victory, however, citing an April auction in Paris that sold 70 Hopi artifacts for $1.2 million: “For the Native Americans, they are living, sacred works. In the ideal world, owners would send them back, and there are private collectors and buyers who are doing just that with little publicity or fanfare. Unfortunately, they are the minority.”

The Paris-based Weingarten had followed French media reports of the tribes’ efforts to stop the most recent auction and instructed the family-run philanthropy’s home offices in Los Angeles to get involved. The details soon fell to Gister, 33, and Laumen, 56.

On the afternoon of Friday, Dec. 6, they were assigned the secret mission: Drawing from a $1 million budget, retrieve the artifacts so cherished by so many. The down side: The auction was only three days away. The bidding would start at 2 p.m. Monday in Paris, 5 a.m. local time. Laumen left the meeting dizzied, but resolute.

“My first reaction was ‘We can do this,’ ” she recalled. “We had the skill sets. We both speak French. I’ve been to auctions before. It was the right thing to do.”

They spent the weekend devising a plan. With the help of Gister’s husband, Michael, they perfected a spreadsheet to organize their bids and purchases. High on their list was auction lot No. 41 on a schedule that included more than 170 pieces: a sacred Hopi object known as “Crow Mother,” a figure with a haunting visage and billowing black feathers.

With Gister in Tarzana and Laumen in Redondo Beach, each set two alarms on Sunday night and promised to telephone and text each other for a 2 a.m. wake-up call. Neither slept much.

At 4 a.m., they set up shop in Gister’s office, arranging their elaborate spreadsheets across three walls, a command center with detailed Post-It notes to track the identity of each item and how much they paid.

Gister followed the auction streaming live on her desktop, barking bids over a land line to the Paris auction house worker. Laumen stayed on her laptop, coordinating via cellphone with Pierre Servan-Schreiber, a Paris lawyer who had represented the Hopi and served as auction lookout.

On the line, Gister tried to keep her voice measured despite the adrenaline. “I was trying to be so nonchalant, trying to redirect anything that could be perceived as interest in the objects,” she said. The former long-distance runner said the action reminded her of the first moments of a race: “But I had the same huge adrenaline rush for the entire one hour and 20 minutes.”

After the pair won their first four objects, the auctioneer took notice. The women watched online as the worker taking Gister’s bids was summoned for an impromptu conference. They watched the two men whisper and hoped they wouldn’t be exposed.

Then, at one point, Servan-Schreiber, the tribal lawyer, engaged the pair in some tag-team bidding. While trying to secure pieces for the Hopis on behalf of benefactors, he began bidding on a figure featuring a hand over a simple face. But the rising price quickly exhausted his budget and he told Laumen, “You have to go.” She signaled Gister, who stepped in to secure the piece with Annenberg funds.

Some items were won after all-out bidding wars, including “Mother Crow,” the priciest lot, which sold for $130,000, nearly twice its expected value.

Tenakhongva, 32, voiced in an email to the foundation his despair at the idea of losing the precious figures that represent sacred tribal deities: “I spoke to them through my thoughts and told our friends that I will see them again and will not forget them wherever they may go.”

In an interview, he said there were still more than 1,000 tribal artifacts in the possession of outsiders, and the tribe wanted them back. “We see them as spiritual beings,” he said.

But now the Hopi will soon have 21 objects they had given up for lost. When the recent auction was over, bidders had spent $1.6 million, a third by Gister and Laumen. With the final object secured, they stood inside the office for a resounding high-five. By then, the first office workers began to arrive, clueless about the drama that had just unfolded.

The pair called Weingarten in Paris with the good news. Laumen made the next move: “Then I said to Allison, ‘Let’s go celebrate.’ ”

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