Tribes hail shield's halted sale; collectors ask what's next

PUEBLO OF ACOMA, N.M. – The laws of a rural New Mexico Native American tribe require that the ceremonial shield stay within the boundaries of its reservation, which covers miles of mountains and rolling desert. And for generations, the sacred object did just that, remaining safely in a home atop a mesa.

So when a photo of the colorful shield recently emerged on a Paris auction house’s website, Acoma Pueblo leaders moved to halt its sale. A legal challenge in the French courts ensued, followed by an emotional public appeal from the pueblo’s governor and an affidavit alleging the shield disappeared after a break-in.

Top U.S. officials also called for French authorities to intervene.

What came next was a rare announcement last month by Paris’ EVE auction house that the item was being withdrawn from bidding on the day it was to be sold, with the only explanation that it was being held pending further examination.

“I do know the French government looked closely at the issue and did the right thing in pulling the shield from the auction,” said Larry Roberts, who oversees the U.S. Interior Department’s Bureau of Indian Affairs and joined in pushing for the sale to be blocked. “I think France is to be congratulated for that.”

But as tribes and their advocates hail the shield’s suspended auction and await a final ruling on whether it will be returned to Acoma Pueblo, some collectors fear the move — along with pending investigations on both sides of the Atlantic — will send a chill through the tribal artifacts market.

In New Mexico, federal authorities, including the FBI, say they are looking into how the shield came on the market. However, a U.S. attorney spokeswoman has declined to comment further, citing the ongoing investigation.

Meanwhile, French authorities have asked Acoma Pueblo to produce more documents, including another affidavit, for their review, said Kurt Riley, the pueblo’s governor.

“When these items do go, we don’t really know when, where, how it all occurred, and all of the sudden they’re popping up overseas,” Riley said. “We’re in the dark as well. But we do know it never should have left the bounds of the reservation, and so once it’s gone, we know it’s a violation of our traditional law.”

Whether that violation of traditional law also means the person who bought and sent the shield to France broke U.S. law, too, is at the centre of much of the debate now surrounding the shield.

Without answers, the Native American artifacts market could seem like a “dicier and dicier” place to do business, said Robert Gallegos, a former president of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association.

French dealers at EVE, Drouot and other Paris auction houses for years have stood their ground against similar high-profile protests, refusing to halt sales and saying that doing so could have broad repercussions for the art market in general.

They have maintained all the objects — including war shirts and mask-like pieces the Hopi say are the physical embodiment of their ancestors — were acquired and sold legally under French and U.S. laws. But that’s something many of the tribes dispute.

EVE made the same assertion about the Acoma Pueblo piece in the lead-up to its May 30 auction. Since the auction, it has not responded to emailed requests for comment from The Associated Press.

In the United States, a law passed by Congress in 1990 in response to years of looting and aggressive archaeological expeditions on tribal lands carries criminal penalties for trafficking human remains, burial objects or items of exceptional cultural or historical importance for a tribe. But interpretations of the law vary.

Gallegos and others in his trade believe the statute doesn’t apply to items taken into a private collection before 1990, which might have been what happened with the shield.

Acoma Pueblo’s attorneys, meanwhile, say the law does apply to such items and note others have been prosecuted for it.

The pueblo’s investigation determined the shield was stolen from the mesa in the 1970s, with the granddaughter of the man tasked with caring for it testifying it was swiped from her family’s home. The shield came into his care after her great-grandfather passed it onto him, she said.

According to the pueblo, the shield is an irreplaceable ceremonial object that belongs to the entire pueblo and holds a place in the cycle of its ceremonies. Stitched together with leather straps, the circular shield features what a historic preservation officer for the tribe describes as the face of a Kachina, or ancestral spirit.

For Riley, Acoma Pueblo’s governor, seeing the shield listed for auction stirred fears that more ceremonial items than previously thought have slipped away to other countries like France, where U.S. laws protecting them typically hold no weight.

“What other sacred items have left that we don’t even know about?” he said. “Where have they gone, and how are we ever going to get them back?”