(RNS) The Annenberg Foundation has paid $530,000 for 24 sacred Native American artifacts, for the sole purpose of returning them to the two tribes who had tried but failed to keep them off the auction block.

The announcement Wednesday (Dec. 11) surprised many who had followed the controversy surrounding the artifcacts, which were included in the sale of 170 Native American items at a Paris auction house. A lawyer for the Hopi and San Carlos Apache tribes had argued before a French court that as sacred objects, used in religious ceremonies, the artifacts should not be sold.

But a U.S. law that limits trafficking in Native American items holds no force abroad, and a French judge ruled on Dec. 6 that the auction could go forward. That is when Gregory Annenberg Weingarten, the vice president and director of the Los Angeles-based foundation, decided to bid on the 24 objects, and return them to the tribes if successful.

“These are not trophies to have on one’s mantel; they are truly sacred works for the Native Americans,” Weingarten said in a statement issued by the foundation.

“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.”

Hopi cultural leader Sam Tenakhongva said in the same statement that the tribe hopes the Annenberg decision to intervene “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.”

“They simply cannot be put up for sale,” he said.

The Annenberg Foundation reported an endowment of $1.53 billion in 2011, according to its website, and gave out $104 million for charitable purposes in the fiscal year that ended in June 2011. Its grants are given to a wide range of causes, including the environment and education.

KRE/AMB END MARKOE

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