The caper unfolded like something out of the movies.
An intercontinental team worked late in the night and in secret to carry out their task.
But these were not criminals or spies or anything close to a character out of John Le Carre.
They were employees of the non-profit Annenberg Foundation and their mission was noble and quite the success.
As recounted in The New York Times, the team was pulled together to retrieve a few dozen Native American artifacts that were up for sale at an auction in Paris. The items were sacred to the Hopi tribe of Arizona, which had objected to the sale and lamented the commercial corruption of their cultural patrimony and the loss of their collective memory.
A Paris-based, pro-bono lawyer for the Hopis stood in the back of the auction room and kept in contact with the foundation as the sale proceeded. Working swiftly and without advance notice (to the auction house or the Hopis), the Annenberg team, bidding over the telephone from Los Angeles, managed to acquire 21 of the 24 masks, headdresses and other items that were up for sale, for upwards of a million bucks. The lawyer purchased one item for a remote couple, who intend to donate it to the tribe.
When learning a few hours later what had happened, the Hopis were grateful.
Next step: figuring out how to safely ship the pieces back to Arizona. Bubble Wrap is out, the Times reported, because it is viewed as something that would suffocate the spirits within.
The episode continues an ongoing debate over what is art and what is sacred. But the outcome of the Annenberg effort is nothing short of a beautiful thing.