Purchase Story

North American Native American Groups Seeking Repatriation of Artifacts

On October 8, 2018, Eldred D. Lesansee, the public relations spokesman for the Association on American Indian Affairs (AAIA), contacted Rago Arts & Auction Center in Lambertville, New Jersey, asking the auction house to withdraw American Indian lots from its October 19 auction of tribal art from the collection of Allan Stone and other owners, alleging that Rago had not made contact with affiliated Native American tribes about the property.

The AAIA demanded that tribes affiliated with the collections be contacted to see if the items had entered collections through theft, looting, or illegal trafficking. Although none of the 15 lots of items from Native American nations, including Apache, Iroquois, Sioux, and Tlingit, were sacred objects or ancestral remains that would have violated the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) of 1990, Rago was asked to withdraw all of the American Indian property in the sale. The request was subject to review by unnamed tribal authorities. The AAIA offered to assist in making connections with affiliated tribes.

“It was about $20,000 worth of material in a million-dollar sale, and we did not have time to consult with tribal leaders just a few days before the sale. In consultation with the Stone estate, we withdrew the lots and returned them to the estate,” said David Rago.

This was Rago’s first tribal sale, and he had asked John Buxton, a colleague on the Antiques Roadshow, to help catalog it. Buxton, an appraiser, said he saw nothing that should not have been sold.

Wes Cowan, an Ohio auctioneer who regularly sells American Indian material, said he has never been contacted by the AAIA, and he did not see anything in the Rago catalog that might have been taken from a grave and needed repatriation. He wondered if the fact that Rago was new to the field made him vulnerable.

Skinner, Inc., in Massachusetts has been selling Native America art and artifacts for decades. In November, one of the consignors to its December 1 sale was contacted by another group seeking repatriation of Native American artifacts. Jean-Luc Pierite, president of the board of directors of the North American Indian Center of Boston (NAICOB), called the Medford Public Library to tell the library that its collection of 19th-century Pacific Northwest Indian artifacts donated to the library in 1880 by James G. Swan needed to be researched to be sure it had not been not looted before it could be sold at Skinner. It included two wood shaman’s masks (est. $30,000/50,000 each), two shaman’s bird rattles (est. $5000/8000), a shaman spirit figure (est. $4000/6000), a cedar trunk (est. $3000/5000), and a cedar totem pole (est. $800/1200).

Under NAGPRA any museum that has received as much as one dollar in federal funding is asked to return property stolen or traded out of the need for food, shelter, and other basic necessities. Some institutions that receive federal aid have repatriated some items back to the nations. Asked how she learned of the Medford Public Library’s consignment to Skinner, Raquel Halsey, interim executive director for NAICOB, said a reporter from the Boston Herald had called and asked her about the sale at Skinner. In the two years she had worked at NAICOB, this was the first time she had dealt with repatriation.

When reached by phone, Karen Keane, CEO of Skinner, said the sale of Indian artifacts from the Medford Public Library had been postponed. “Some of the material is Canadian and not covered by NAGPRA, but we must give the library time to deal with this,” she said.

Shannon Keller O’Loughlin, executive director of the AAIA, said she had recently attended the fourth annual Repatriation Conference at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, held November 13-15. AAIA, the oldest group of its kind, founded in 1922, sponsors the conference. She posted a letter claiming that the Medford Public Library is likely in violation of NAGPRA in wanting to sell its Northwest Coast items and could be subject to civil penalties, and stating that Skinner should not sell items over 100 years old that do not have an artist’s signature denoting that the item is a commercial piece unless a tribal governmental representative has verified that such an item is not the patrimony of the tribe and is not a stolen or looted object.

The AAIA, headquartered in Maryland, wants the public to know about its mission to return sacred objects to tribes and to alert those who do repatriate that they can take a tax deduction. “These objects are cultural property, not art, and were not made for sale. They were looted or stolen over the years,” said O’Loughlin. She insisted that “much of what we call American Indian art was ceremonial or funerary patrimony” and that “some masks are powerful items not to be seen in public, dangerous to view or to hold, the property of healing societies.”

Among recent AAIA press releases is one directed to the current exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It asks people to contact the Met and demand that it remove immediately all items of Native American cultural heritage from its exhibit Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection until the Met consults with affiliated tribal governmental representatives.

Sylvia L. Yount, curator in charge of the Met’s American Wing, said the Metropolitan Museum of Art has cooperated with NAGPRA for years and that Gaylord Torrence, the Fred and Virginia Merrill Senior Curator of American Indian Art at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri, who curated the exhibition of works from the Diker collection, was comfortable with the 116 objects on view. Yount believes it is important that American Indian art is shown in an art museum, not only in ethnographic museums. She said she has seen to it that a multiplicity of voices is heard.

On the Met’s website is a notice: “The Metropolitan Museum of Art is situated in Lenapehoking, the homeland of Lenape peoples, and respectfully acknowledges their ongoing cultural and spiritual connections to the area.” To demonstrate how artists and scholars inform and expand our understanding of expressions of cultural identity, the Met asked nine Native American artists and several Native American historians of 18th- and 19th-century works to comment on works by Saint-Gaudens, Bierstadt, Bingham, and others. “We have a long-term commitment to showing the art of the Americas, and we are super sensitive to the spiritual significance of Native American works, and we follow the letter of the law,” said Yount.

According to John Molloy, president of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association (ATADA), the association has agreed not to sell cultural property that offends Native American religious sensibilities, and it follows federal laws and adheres to the highest standards of professional ethics. Molloy said the Indian market in Santa Fe has been held every summer for 96 years, and in the 1830s Native Americans were selling their wares to tourists at Niagara Falls, demonstrating that Indians have traded for a long time. In the 25 years since NAGPRA has been the law of the land, dealers have returned over 100 ceremonial artifacts to southwestern Indian tribes.

Kate Fitz Gibbon, a cultural property lawyer in Santa Fe who advises ATADA and other clients on the question of repatriation, said in a phone interview and e-mail that “these indiscriminate demands for repatriation and tribal review of all objects for sale or exhibited are not based on any U.S. law. They will not only damage the legal market for American Indian art but will harm Native artisans as well. Legal remedies exist when something is actually stolen, and the trade responds very positively in these cases. ATADA has gone well beyond the legal requirements to bring important ceremonial objects back to tribes in their Voluntary Returns Program.”

Fitz Gibbon said that what really worries her is that the AAIA is demonizing art dealers, collectors, and museums, making them its focus, when a national monument such as Bears Ears, which was created through tribal consultation precisely because it contains more than 100,000 archaeological and cultural sites, has now been reduced by 85% by the current administration. “It seems like the art issue is a smokescreen for a much larger issue of cultural heritage that won’t be discussed because it involves real money, and oil and gas and uranium interests,” she suggested. 


Originally published in the January 2019 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2019 Maine Antique Digest

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