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Native Americans protest, derail sale of human skull at North Carolina auction house

Tyler Dukes, The Charlotte Observer on

Published in News & Features

An effort to sell a 600-year-old human skull at a rural North Carolina auction house was abruptly halted over the weekend after a group of opponents led by Native Americans intervened.

Bidders gathered at the Mebane Antique Auction Gallery in western Orange County on Saturday for the sale of nearly 500 estate items, from age-worn oil paintings to 19th century American rifles.

The small skull — marked Lot 243 in the auction — “appears to be complete and original, missing some teeth,” according to the listing, which dated its previous purchase to an antique gallery in Montreal sometime in the 1960s.

Prospective buyers showed interest well before the bones, described as originating in North America circa 1400, were slated for the auction block. By mid-day Saturday, more than a dozen online bids had pushed the price up to about $2,000.

But the skull doesn’t appear destined to end up in private hands.

The owners, a couple in Chapel Hill, told The News & Observer Sunday they want to work with tribal members to repatriate the remains.


The canceled auction is just one example of a long, emotional quest by tribal and federal officials to stop the buying and selling of native human remains.

The successful return of these bones to tribal lands depends largely on a cobbled-together collection of state and federal laws — not all of which are well understood by local law enforcement.

And sometimes, the case in Mebane shows, that patchwork can fail.

Legal or not?


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