WASHINGTON – Acoma Pueblo Gov. Kurt Riley was nearing the end of an impassioned, public plea to the French government last week when his emotions finally overcame him.
As the Acoma official stood in the soaring atrium of the National Museum of the American Indian at an emergency meeting last week to pressure the French government to halt the impending sale of a sacred Acoma Pueblo artifact by a French auction house, Riley began to weep.
“As you can tell, when these items leave our pueblo this is how much it hurts,” Riley said, choking back tears. “This is how much it hurts my people to see their cultural patrimony put on the internet or go up for sale.”
The sale of an Acoma Pueblo shield by the EVE Auction House in Paris is scheduled for today, and federal officials, including Interior Secretary Sally Jewell, were scrambling late last week to prevent it. Riley told the Journal the Acoma shield, which was used in religious ceremonies, was improperly removed from the pueblo and shipped from New Mexico to France at an undetermined time. Bids are expected to begin today in Paris at about 7,000 euros, or about $7,700.
On Friday, Jewell wrote a letter to Catherine Chadelat, president of France’s auctions authority, the Council of Voluntary Sales, imploring the French government to step in and block the transaction.
“We have reason to believe that this object was stolen,” Jewell wrote. “I respectfully request that you prevent its sale and direct the Eve Auction House to work with the tribe on its repatriation.”
Jewell also asked the French official to help the U.S. government identify the American citizen who sold the artifact to the auction house “so that justice may be served.”
In response to a Journal inquiry on Friday, the French Embassy in Washington said the government was investigating the issue and “giving it most serious consideration.”
“The French authorities have referred this matter to the Central Office for the Fight Against Trafficking of Cultural Property, and we are awaiting the results of their investigation,” embassy spokeswoman Emmanuelle Lachaussee said in an email. “In addition, the French Customs Service is in contact with its American counterpart in order to move forward with the necessary verifications.
“As a rule, the French authorities enforce the 1970 Convention on the Illicit Trafficking of Cultural Property, with an ad hoc legislative and legal framework that makes it possible to effectively combat such trafficking,” Lachaussee added. “France actively cooperates with the United States in this regard.”
But she did not say whether the sale of the Acoma shield would be prevented.
The sale of tribal cultural items at the EVE Auction House has gone on for years, with collectors clamoring for ownership of rare Native American items. Today’s planned auction will feature hundreds of religious items and art pieces from the Americas, Africa and Asia, including the Acoma shield. EVE auction house director Alain Leroy told The Associated Press on Friday that all of the items are of legal trade in both the United States and France, and that tribes will have an opportunity through the auction process to acquire their missing artifacts.
Riley said he was offended by EVE’s “curt” letter informing the pueblo that it could bid on the shield.
“Why should we bid on something that is ours?” Riley asked the Journal in an interview. “I think that just totally dismisses our position. France is very proud of their culture, and so are we, and if we offended them in any way as far as their cultural values, then we would hear about it.”
Gregory Smith, an attorney for Acoma Pueblo in Washington, said he has “been very pleased with the response of the French Embassy,” since last week’s emergency meeting in Washington.
“I think they have expressed a great deal of concern and did what was in their power, which is to conduct a basic government (inquiry),” Smith told the Journal on Friday. “The responsibility (for stopping the sale) lies with other parts of the French government.”
Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., introduced a resolution in Congress last week seeking “explicit restrictions on the export of cultural tribal items” and more collaboration between state and local governments to prevent such sales. Congressional hearings on the issue are expected in the coming months. At the meeting last week, Pearce told the audience that “in the Southwest and New Mexico, cultures are just wrapped together.”
“That is the way it should be, and that’s why when we find that cultural items are being offered for sale we all say why?” Pearce said. “We should not be trafficking in tribal, culturally sensitive items.”
Mark Taplin of the State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs said the State Department is using diplomatic channels to prevent the sale.
“In the absence of clear documentation of consent of the tribes themselves, these objects simply shouldn’t be sold,” he said. “This type of commercialization of Native American cultural property is fundamentally wrong.”