Art Patron Explains Why Native American Masks Belong With Tribes

THE New York woman who made headlines recently when she paid $39,050 at auction for three native American ceremonial objects and vowed to return them to two tribes protesting the sale, says her action "came from the heart." Elizabeth Sackler responded after Sotheby's refused to remove from its May 21 auction two ceremonial Hopi dance masks, or "Kachinas" and a painted hide mask thought to be Navajo. The auction house had received letters from each tribe requesting that the masks be removed from the sale but has maintained its legality under the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act of 1990.

"I would hope more people would become more sensitive to other cultures," Miss Sackler says. "These Indian cultures are not dead. It's important for the art world to distinguish between objects of art and sacred objects of living cultures. These masks are part of a spiritual, ceremonial life, now in 1991. These objects are different from rugs woven for trade or jewelry made for sale."

Miss Sackler, a daughter of the art collector and philanthropist Arthur M. Sackler, is president of the Arthur M. Sackler Foundation, which has been responsible for catalogues and exhibitions of the foundation's collection. But she says she is not a collector and not acting on behalf of the foundation.

"I think we have to recognize the near genocide of the American Indians and how they were herded into parcels of land," she says. "If people look at what they own and ask whether or not this is an object that is sacred, then the return of these masks will have produced a useful response. I would hope that the public and the art world might become more sensitive in the future in their purchases and sales."

Since acquiring the objects, Sackler has received no instructions from the tribes, she says. Nor is it clear whether the mask thought to be Navajo has spiritual significance. But she is confident the mask will prove to be Navajo.

"I have written to two important members of the Hopi tribe, and I am awaiting word from the Hopi nation," she says.

Sackler also says public response has been overwhelming. "There has been a lot of joy. People are really happy about this. Phone calls and letters of support have arrived from people ranging from museum directors to the general public."

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