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Foundation is buying lost or looted artifacts, returning them to tribes

  • Article by: John M. Glionna
  • Los Angeles Times
  • December 24, 2013 - 5:38 PM

 

– They were two veteran emissaries for a Los Angeles-based philanthropy, tasked with staging a clandestine operation to rescue a series of Native American spiritual artifacts from public sale half a world away.

This month, Annenberg Foundation staffers Allison Gister and Carol Laumen found themselves making anonymous telephone bids at a Paris auction to secure rarities considered sacred by the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes in Arizona, including exotic masklike visages that had been lost — some say looted — over the last century.

For 80 fast-paced minutes, the women huddled in Gister’s office, eyes on their computer screens, phones held to their ears. Secrecy was crucial so as not to drive up prices, or hopes. Not even the tribes knew.

Directing a Paris auction house worker to place her bids, Gister, a Des Moines native whose French amounted to an 18-month crash course, yelled “Go! Go!”

It worked. Twenty-one kachina masks for the Hopis and three sacred gaan headdresses for the Apaches were purchased for a total of $530,000 and soon will be returned to the two tribes.

“I sat here with tears of happiness,” Sam Tenakhongva, a Hopi who works with the tribe’s cultural office, wrote of the artifacts in an e-mail to the foundation after the auction. “To hear that they will be coming home and sooner than I ever imagined is really quite remarkable.”

Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, vice president of the foundation, did not claim victory, however, citing an April auction in Paris that sold 70 Hopi artifacts for $1.2 million: “For the Native Americans, they are living, sacred works. In the ideal world, owners would send them back, and there are private collectors and buyers who are doing just that with little publicity or fanfare,” he said. “Unfortunately, they are the minority.”

The Paris-based Weingarten had followed French media reports of the tribes’ efforts to stop the most recent auction and instructed the family-run philanthropy’s home offices in Los Angeles to get involved.

After Gister and Laumen won their first four objects, the auctioneer took notice. They watched online as the worker taking Gister’s bids was summoned for a conference.

Then at one point, a tribal lawyer, engaged the pair in some tag-team bidding.

While trying to secure pieces for the Hopis on behalf of benefactors, he began bidding on a figure featuring a hand over a simple face. But the rising price quickly exhausted his budget and Gister stepped in to secure the piece with Annenberg funds.

Some items were won after all-out bidding wars, including “Mother Crow,” the priciest lot, which sold for $130,000, nearly twice its expected value.

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