The Katsinam masks are scheduled for sale at the Drouot auction house on Dec. 9 and 11, alongside an altar from the Zuni tribe that used to belong to late Hollywood star Vincent Price, and other Native American frescoes and dolls.
Advocates for the Hopis argue that selling the sacred Katsinam masks as commercial art is illegal because the masks are like tombs and represent their ancestors' spirits. The tribe nurtures and feed the masks as if they are the living dead. The objects are surreal faces made from wood, leather, horse hair and feathers and painted in vivid pigments of red, blue, yellow and orange.
In April, a Paris court ruled that such sales are legal in France, and Drouot sold off around 70 Hopi masks despite vocal protests and criticism from actor Robert Redford and the U.S. government. The U.S., unlike France, possesses laws which robustly protect indigenous peoples.
Tribal lawyers filed a new lawsuit over the new sale, and a Paris court held a hearing in the case Tuesday. The judge will issue a verdict Friday, three days before the first sale.
The Hopis' French lawyer, Pierre Servan-Schreiber, remains optimistic that this time the judge will rule in their favor. His argument highlights an existing French law which prevents the sale of tombs, and gives these objects a special, protected status.
"The Hopis are saying that not everything can be sold and bought. The day that there are no more Katsinam masks, the Hopi tribe will exist no more," Servan-Schreiber argued in court.
"It's a cause worth fighting for. And like all good causes, you need to keep fighting. The Hopis
have been massacred, slaughtered, pillaged and for years deprived of what was theirs, and at some point this has to change," Servan-Schreiber said.
The tribe has said it believes the masks, which date back to the late 19th and early 20th century, were taken from a northern Arizona reservation in the early 20th century. Curiosity about one of the oldest indigenous tribes whose territory is now surrounded by the U.S. state first led collectors and researchers there.