“The Annenberg Foundation set an example today of how to do the right thing,” said Sam Tenakhongva, a member of the Hopi Nation, after the philanthropic organization was revealed as the winning bidder for 24 sacred Native American artifacts that were auctioned off in Paris recently.

The foundation paid $530,000 for the items and announced it would return them to the Hopi and the San Carlos Apache tribes. The artifacts, which date from the late 19th and 20th centuries and include mask-like objects known as Katsinam that the Hopi consider imbued by divine spirits, were part of a larger lot of 66 Native American items that generated $1.6 million at the EVE auction house.

There is hope that the foundation’s action will convince others that culturally significant or sacred objects don’t belong on the auction block. The long-term effects of the foundation’s generosity, however, are unclear. The foundation’s attempt to denounce the auction as a forum for the exchange of cultural property was compromised the moment it silently raised a paddle to bid.

At the auction, the foundation purchased the ability to make the decision about who should own the cultural artifacts, notably, artifacts the tribes couldn’t -- or wouldn’t -- buy themselves, even after legal and diplomatic efforts to delay the auction failed. And even though the foundation arguably made the right decision to restore the artifacts to the tribes, it has legitimized the very situation it means to criticize, making the sacred objects seem fair game.

Moreover, the subjects of the tribes’ and the foundation’s censure -- the auction house and those participating in the art market -- are unlikely to hear the reproach, especially because the auction proved so successful. The auction house likely cares more about the $1.6 million in sales than who bought the contested items or what happens to them.

Maybe it would have been better for the tribes to have lost the objects. The tribes could have made a more meaningful statement by repudiating the sale and doggedly insisting on their legal claims to the items. Such a response would reaffirm the tribes’ sovereignty while rejecting the notion that a price can be put on sacred objects. However, the decision to make such a sacrifice -- forgoing their cultural artifacts -- has to come from the tribes.

The best bet for indigenous people to secure their cultural property is through the legal system, where taking a principled stand could pay dividends.

A developing legal framework provides the tools to restore cultural artifacts to their rightful owners. In addition to the 1970 United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization Convention, the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples explicitly establishes the rights of indigenous peoples to maintain, control and protect their cultural heritage and obligates signatory states to take effective measures to protect their right to do so.

This framework needs to be strengthened. In the meantime indigenous groups can further develop the law while making progress in its shadow. This month, to avoid a burdensome legal fight, Sotheby’s and the consignor of a 10th-century statue agreed to return the artifact to Cambodia. The settlement agreement said the decision was reached “in the interests of promoting cooperation and collaboration with respect to cultural heritage.”

Acquiring disputed objects at auction can hardly be said to promote this sort of cooperation. A more beneficial approach for the Annenberg Foundation would have been to use the money it spent in Paris to assist indigenous groups with legal fees, lobbying efforts and a strategy for future cases. Furthermore, had the Annenberg Foundation worked with the tribes to acquire the objects through legal mechanisms, it could have created a model that other tribes could follow.

Countries need to be pushed to strengthen laws to curb profiteering in cultural objects. Unfortunately, thanks to the generosity of their benefactor, the Hopi and San Carlos Apache are now less likely to put this sort of pressure on the French government. The tribes have less incentive to exhaust resources on a case that seems to have resolved itself favorably, making the need for legal action and reform seem less urgent. But legal tools represent the best bet for most indigenous groups, not all of which have an Annenberg Foundation to buy back their cultural heritage.

(Matthew H. Birkhold is a visiting scholar at the Humboldt-Universitat zu Berlin.)

To contact the writer of this article: Matthew Birkhold at birkhold@princeton.edu

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Alex Bruns at abruns@bloomberg.net