An overseas auction of Alaska Native and Native American sacred objects caused controversy last year among tribes who said the pieces belonged with them.

Now, two Alaska Native artifacts — a Tlingit panel and a Chugach mask — have been returned to the 49th state. The Annenberg Foundation, based in California, purchased the sacred items anonymously at a Paris auction with plans to return them to Alaska.

The staff at Sealaska Heritage Institute were stunned to find out the panel was coming home, said SHI president Rosita Worl. It arrived at the Juneau-based nonprofit last Friday.

“We were astonished when we heard the Annenberg Foundation purchased the panel to send it home,” Worl said in a release from SHI. “This has never happened before, and it is wonderful news.”

The panel appears to be part of an old Tlingit bentwood box with a painted Chilkat design. The box could have held sacred objects, and was donated to SHI because clan affiliation could not be determined, Worl said. SHI has plans to see if the panel can be tied to a certain clan. If an association can be made, the object will be returned to the appropriate group.

Back in December, SHI wrote letters to the U.S. Assistant Secretary for Indian Affairs, asking for an intervention of the sale. Legally, the U.S. could not halt it. SHI also wrote to the head of the auction house to plead for a sale delay, SHI said. When the auction house moved forward with the sale despite tribal groups’ requests, the Annenberg Foundation intervened — something the foundation was happy to do, said Annenberg Foundation General Manager Carol Laumen.

The foundation — which has been supporting nonprofits since 1989 — also purchased a Chugach mask with the head of a bird of prey. Made of cedar wood, it’s painted red and black with greenish-blue plant pigments. The mask was given to Chugach Alaska Corporation, Laumen said.

John Johnson, vice president of cultural resources with Chugach, said he picked up the mask in person last month.

“I didn’t want it to just go in the mail,” said Johnson, noting how he wanted to express his gratitude to the Annenberg Foundation.

The Alaska Native artifacts are among 27 total items — 22 of which belonged to the Hopi tribe in Arizona — the foundation purchased at the auction.

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