ALBUQUERQUE – A federal report shows the number of Native American cultural items listed for bidding at five Paris auction houses declined after an uproar two years ago led to the halted sale of an Acoma Pueblo ceremonial shield – a piece tribal leaders say was illegally taken from their village in New Mexico.
The U.S. Government Accountability Office in a report released this week analyzed sales and listings at auction houses that federal officials identified as primary markets for Native American cultural items – such as clothing and the colorful Acoma shield that remains in Paris amid an investigation.
The items at the auction houses likely include those that tribes say are sacred and have been stolen from them, and those that represent artwork that has a legitimate place in the marketplace, according to the report.
It said it sometimes is difficult to differentiate between the two categories, and it noted that 13 tribes had flagged the listings of their ceremonial items over the years.
The federal report found 1,400 Native American cultural items were listed for sale by the auction houses between 2012 and 2017, with about half selling for nearly $7 million total.
Figures also show that after a peak in listings in May 2016 – when Acoma Pueblo Gov. Kurt Riley made an emotional public appeal for the shield’s return – the number of items listed and sold dropped in the year that followed.
U.S. officials at the time also called for French authorities to intervene in stopping the shield’s sale, citing a history of Native American ceremonial items being taken or looted before being sold to institutions and collectors.
“We in some ways have deterred the outright public sales of these items,” said Aaron Sims, an attorney for Acoma Pueblo.
But he noted that the report’s numbers don’t account for sales on the black market, where the pueblo fears some items that might have appeared in public auction catalogs in the past are now being sold.
In May 2016, the federal report found that 220 items were listed in the Paris auction catalogs with just less than a third of the items – or 65 – marked as sold, according to the report. By the end of 2016, there was a 75 percent drop in the number of items listed, with no measurable rebound in listings or sales in the dates analyzed since.
“I do hear from dealers overseas that they are skittish,” said Robert Gallegos, a board member for the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association who lives in Albuquerque. “What the French auction houses have seen is an outburst from tribes.”
He said vagueness surrounding what items tribes consider sacred and what they deem a marketable art item has likely contributed to the decline of pieces sold.
According to the federal report, the vast majority of items were affiliated with tribes in the Southwest – a finding that Sims said confirms what Acoma Pueblo leaders have long believed: Tribes in the region, and perhaps specifically in New Mexico, have been disproportionately affected by decades of looting and trafficking of ceremonial objects that they consider irreplaceable.
The circular Acoma shield stitched together with leather straps, for example, holds a place in the pueblo’s cycle of ceremonies and features what a tribal historic preservation officer describes as the face of a Kachina, or ancestral spirit.
An affidavit produced by the tribe alleges the shield was taken from a home in the pueblo’s village atop a mesa west of Albuquerque.
French dealers at EVE, the auction house that initially planned to sell the shield, have said in the past that they acquired it legally under French and U.S. laws. They did not respond to emailed request for comment Friday.