On December 4, 2013, Sotheby’s (NYC) plans to auction a Buffalo Robe that may have been taken from Cheyennes who were brutally murdered and had to flee without food or proper clothing in the middle of the winter. The Buffalo Robe, the Northern Cheyenne Cultural Commission and Northern Cheyenne Tribe asserts, is cultural patrimony, and the item should be taken off of auction. As Christie’s states in its description of the Buffalo Robe a few years ago, the Buffalo Robe was taken as “booty” during an 1876 campaign in the Powder River Basin in present-day Montana.
Sadly, this concept of spoils of war is not new in the art world—that is, to sell the clothes and items off of men, women, and children brutally murdered. This practice, in fact, was tolerated until recently among auction houses and the private art market in the case of items stolen by German Nazis who forced Jewish families from their homes to flee for safety in other parts of the world or horrifically murdered them in gas chambers or otherwise in the 1930s and 1940s.
The horror of these acts—in both the Northern Cheyenne experience and the Jewish experience—cannot be erased by time, as they are things that are felt on a daily basis among their communities, within their families, and by their peoples. While “time” will never erase such an act, the art world and Sotheby’s can act to remove such items from auction and assist Native communities with their return.
So, Sotheby’s, what is it going to be?