You may remember the two wampum belts that were withdrawn from a recent Sotheby’s sale. Indian Country Today has a detailed story behind the event. This issue is even murkier than a restitution case or the recovery of stolen item. And one doesn’t have to be a fan of the auction houses to recognize that they are caught between consignor and claimant as the edge in the story shows:
Shannon Keller O’Loughlin has a unique job. As part of her work as tribal attorney for the Onondaga Nation, she monitors e-Bay and other Web sites of places that might harbor and trade in sacred items that rightfully belong to Indian nations. “It’s amazing the kinds of things they continue to sell, not just from North American Indian cultures, but from all around the world. To Sotheby’s and some of these other big auction houses, they’re just commodities,” said O’Loughlin, Choctaw of Oklahoma. She not only monitors the whereabouts of sacred objects, but also tries to get them back to their rightful owners. “This is a huge issue. We’re trying, but there’s a lot of stuff out there and it seems that we never get much of it back. It’s just a drop in the bucket.”
O’Loughlin currently is negotiating with Sotheby’s in New York for the return of two wampum belts the auction house planned to put on the block May 20. […] “They were very slow to respond. Sotheby’s general counsel, Jane Levine, was very cold about the whole thing.” Levine told O’Loughlin the nations could submit a letter requesting donation of the items, or bid on them. “I called her up and said, ‘You know, look, you happen to be having this auction during the Indigenous Peoples Forum (the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues annual meeting) so there’s already a delegation of Haudenosaunee here and we’ll be at the auction. That concerned her,” O’Loughlin said. […] “I think the letters and the possibility that a bunch of Indians were going to be in their halls and the NYT got them to remove the items, but that’s as far as we’ve gotten,” O’Loughlin said. She asked Levine to arrange a meeting of the Haudenosaunee representatives with representatives of the estate of the consignor, the late Herbert G. Wellington Jr., and on June 3 received a response. “They refuse to have a meeting with us. Sotheby’s told me that the consignor does not want to donate the items, but they’re willing to keep an offer open for 30 days for the Haudenosaunee to purchase the belts for $60,000, which is actually more than what they were listed at. They told me, and I quote, that this is about a financial action only. We haven’t made any decisions yet except to move forward in good faith that the right things will happen,” O’Loughlin said.
Sotheby’s Wampum Belt a “Drop in the Bucket” of Sacred Items for Sale (Indian Country Today)