Navajos buy back artifacts at Paris auction

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PARIS (AP) -- Navajo officials spent several hundred thousand euros to buy back seven tribal masks at an auction Monday in Paris - a sale that went ahead despite efforts by the U.S. government to stop it.

The objects for sale at the Drouot auction house included masks believed to have been used in Navajo wintertime healing ceremonies, as well as Hopi artifacts. Navajo Nation Vice President Rex Lee Jim says they are not art but a part of tribal identity, and shouldn't be traded commercially.

The U.S. Embassy in Paris asked Drouot to suspend the sale to allow Navajo and Hopi representatives to determine where they came from.

Drouout refused, arguing that there's nothing illegal about the sales.

Jim, a medicine man who traveled to Paris for the auction with other Navajo officials, said they were unable to determine the origin of the masks.

So the Navajo Nation representatives bid for seven masks at the auction and won.

Jim described them as "living and breathing beings," saying they "were not constructed for decorating homes or to hang in art galleries."

French art collector Armand Hui initially triggered a bidding war on several masks, but later told The AP that he "backed down" when he saw that the tribe wanted to buy them back. "I wanted to respect that," he said.

The Associated Press is not transmitting images of the objects because the Hopi have long kept the items out of public view and consider it sacrilegious for any images of the objects to appear.

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Oleg Cetinic in Paris contributed to this report.