A US foundation has revealed it was the mystery buyer of sacred Native American objects auctioned off Monday in Paris under a cloud of controversy, and will return them to the tribes that claim them.
The Annenberg Foundation announced it had bought 21 Hopi masks -- which are worn by dancers during religious ceremonies and considered as living beings -- and three San Carlos Apache objects for $530,000 (390,000 euros) "for the sole purpose of returning them to their rightful owner."
Monday's auction had gone ahead despite several attempts to block the sale of the colourful masks and head-dresses, including by the US embassy.
Advocacy group Survival International had also challenged the auction in court on behalf of the Hopi tribe, but the case was dismissed on Friday by a judge who ruled the sale was legal in France.
"Our hope is that this act sets an example for others that items of significant cultural and religious value can only be properly cared for by those vested with the proper knowledge and responsibility," Sam Tenakhongva, a Hopi cultural leader, said in the Tuesday statement announcing the purchase.
"They simply cannot be put up for sale."
The auction also included other pieces of Native American art belonging to a private collector, but the controversy focused on the sale of 27 objects considered sacred by the tribes.
Pierre Servan-Schreiber, the lawyer who represented the Hopi in the legal attempt to block the sale, bought one of the masks for 13,000 euros and will return it to the Hopi, but the fate of the two other items included in the sale remained unclear.
Mark Taplin, Charge d'Affaires at the US embassy in Paris, on Wednesday welcomed the foundation's move.
"The embassy will continue to support Native American tribes that request our assistance when culturally or religiously significant items are being offered for sale at auction," he said.
"The need for real dialogue in advance of such public sales, along with stronger legal protections, was once again made apparent this week."
All in all, the 27 objects fetched 550,000 euros, including a leather helmet mask framed by two large crow wings that went for 125,000 euros. It was unclear whether it was part of what the foundation bought.
Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, director of the Los Angeles-based foundation that funds non-profit organisations around the world, said he took the decision to buy the artefacts after Survival International's legal challenge failed.
"As an artist, I was struck by the awesome power and beauty of these objects," he said.
"But these are not trophies to have on one's mantel, they are truly sacred works for the Native Americans. They do not belong in auction houses or private collections.
"It gives me immense satisfaction to know that they will be returned home to their rightful owners, the Native Americans."
The controversy echoed a similar case in April when French firm Neret-Minet ignored international appeals to halt the sale of some 70 Hopi masks that eventually fetched around 930,000 euros.
That auction was decried as a sacrilege by activists including Hollywood legend Robert Redford.
The sale of sacred Indian artefacts has been outlawed in the United States since 1990 but the law does not extend to sales overseas.
The judge in charge of the legal challenge to Monday's auction acknowledged that the sale of the objects could "constitute an affront to the dignity" of the tribe.
But she said "this moral and philosophical consideration does not in itself give the judge the right to suspend the sale of these masks which is not forbidden in France".