An Acoma shield that was removed from a May auction in Paris that included human remains and indigenous sacred objects has yet to be returned. Last Wednesday, US District Judge Martha Vasquez approved a warrant requested by the US attorney’s office in New Mexico to recover the shield from the EVE (Estimations Ventes aux Enchères) auction house.
The painted leather shield is believed to have been acquired illegally in the 1970s. The shield was among a number of contested items, including a Lakota war shirt, a mummified Nazca foot, and a Peruvian shrunken head.
In a statement issued to the press last week, Governor Kurt Riley of the Pueblo of Acoma said:
This fight has again reached another defining point, I am proud to tell our community and our past tribal officials, who for many years fought this good fight with too little support. The grant of this warrant powerfully demonstrates the commitment of the United States to protecting tribal cultural patrimony. Today we have been heard; it is a small victory for my people, but a victory that will set the precedent for our brothers and sister tribes to follow, as they fight their own fights.
Riley added that there “are many ways that cultural property can come home” and while the “legal process is one path” they “welcome opportunities to discuss with those who hold our cultural property how, in a voluntary and positive manner, these items can be returned.”
The May auction was only the most recent in EVE’s auctions of disputed objects, which go back to 2013. Another auction including “arts Amerindiens” is currently on their calendar for November 29, although there are no details as of yet on what it will include. EVE auctioneer Alain Leroy notably responded to a request for comment on the May outcry, which included an emergency meeting at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, that “all the items proposed are of legal trade in the US and in France,” and that “the public auction process allows the different tribes to acquire their past, and that is exactly what some tribes prefer to do, seeking efficiency and discretion.”
The warrant joins other efforts to improve control over the sale of indigenous objects in other countries that would not be legal in the United States. In July, Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico introduced the Safeguard Tribal Objects of Patrimony (STOP) Act aimed at curtailing the export of objects that violate the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), the Archaeological Resources Protection Act, or the Antiquities Act. The lack of limits on these exports has been one of the major problems in halting the French auctions. However, the STOP Act has already faced criticism from collectors who fear the designation of sacred objects is unclear.
According to a report from the Associated Press, federal officials “had no immediate comment on how they would try to use the judge’s order in their effort to obtain the shield and bring it back to the United States.” The Pueblo of Acoma affirmed in their release that the “time frame for this situation rests now in the hands of the French government and their willingness to comply with the warrant.”
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.