Crack­ing down on fake In­dian art

The Denver Post - - DENVER & THE WEST - By Mor­gan Lee

FE» The re­cent SANTA spread of fake Amer­i­can In­dian art and jew­elry has shown the need to up­date how the fed­eral gov­ern­ment pro­tects tribal artists from fraud that un­der­cuts the value of their work, ac­cord­ing to two U.S. sen­a­tors who gath­ered sug­ges­tions for re­forms on Fri­day.

New Mex­ico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Hein­rich con­vened a hear­ing in the Amer­i­can In­dian arts hub of Santa Fe, where fed­eral law en­force­ment of­fi­cials and lead­ing Amer­i­can In­dian artists de­scribed a dis­heart­en­ing in­flux of coun­ter­feit jew­elry, weav­ings and con­tem­po­rary art knock-offs.

“We’ve got a se­ri­ous prob­lem on our hands,” said Udall, vice chair of the Se­nate In­dian af­fairs com­mit­tee, sum­ma­riz­ing three hours of tes­ti­mony. “Fake In­dian arts and crafts are flood­ing the mar­kets right here in Santa Fe and across the coun­try and this is hav­ing an ef­fect of desta­bi­liz­ing the Na­tive Art mar­ket. It’s forc­ing Na­tive Amer­i­cans to quit their crafts.”

Udall said he hopes to pro­pel ef­forts to mod­ern­ize the In­dian Arts and Crafts Act to cope with so­phis­ti­cated in­ter­na­tional jew­elry rings that copy Amer­i­can In­dian de­signs and po­lice on­line sales. The act makes it a crime to falsely mar­ket and sell art as Amer­i­can In­dian-made when it is not.

A 2010 amend­ment to the In­dian Arts and Crafts Act broad­ened pro­vi­sions to al­low any fed­eral law en­force­ment to con­duct in­ves­ti­ga­tions, while a 2012 agree­ment put the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service at the fore­front of pur­su­ing vi­o­la­tions.

Wil­liam Woody, the top law en­force­ment of­fi­cial at the Fish and Wildlife Service, warned that coun­ter­feit­ers may eas­ily write off economic sanc­tions, calling the cur­rent $250,000 max­i­mum fine a “pit­tance.”

He and a rep­re­sen­ta­tive from the De­part­ment of Jus­tice said law­mak­ers should con­sider bol­ster­ing crim­i­nal for­fei­ture pro­vi­sions as well.

Pressed for an estimate on how much of the U.S. In­dian art mar­ket is made up of coun­ter­feits, Woody said “it could be as high as 80 per­cent” but cau­tioned that con­fir­ma­tion is im­pos­si­ble.

Fed­eral pros­e­cu­tors in New Mex­ico are pre­par­ing for two tri­als in an am­bi­tious in­ves­ti­ga­tion that traced fal­si­fied Amer­i­can In­dian art from man­u­fac­tur­ers in the Philip­pines to gal­leries across the United States, from Santa Fe to Vir­ginia and Alaska.

Of­fi­cials on Fri­day said the tar­geted net­works im­ported jew­elry with a de­clared value of $11 million. They said the jew­elry would have fetched at least twice that price through re­tail sales.

Meridith Stan­ton, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the In­te­rior De­part­ment’s In­dian Arts and Crafts Board, said her of­fice al­ready works with le­gal de­part­ments for on­line sell­ers in­clud­ing Ama­zon, ebay and Etsy to con­front ven­dors of fake In­dian art­work.

Her of­fice also at­tends events such as Santa Fe’s sum­mer In­dian Mar­ket to ed­u­cate shoppers and bro­kers about avoid­ing fraud­u­lent In­dian art.

“You can speak or pass out brochures, and do work­shops and sem­i­nars, but you still have to have the law en­force­ment as­pect, you have to have the ham­mer,” Stan­ton said.

Joyce Be­gay-foss, a Navajo weaver and di­rec­tor of education at the New Mex­ico Museum of In­dian Arts and Cul­ture, said both In­dian artists and be­fud­dled shoppers are frus­trated by the in­flux of coun­ter­feits. She called out Navajo bas­kets as fakes that were used as dec­o­ra­tions for the Se­nate hear­ing.

“The fed­eral law does not pro­tect you as a buyer,” she said.

In Oc­to­ber 2015, fed­eral agents raided In­dian art gal­leries in Al­bu­querque and Gallup in New Mex­ico, and in Cal­is­toga, Calif., to seize coun­ter­feits and ev­i­dence. Author­i­ties have ac­cused Nael Ali, owner of two Amer­i­can In­dian art gal­leries in the Old Town neigh­bor­hood of Al­bu­querque and an­other in Ari­zona, of at­tribut­ing jew­elry to spe­cific Navajo crafts­men when it was ac­tu­ally made in the Philip­pines.

Ali and art sup­plier Mo­ham­mad Manasra are sched­uled for trial in Au­gust on fraud charges un­der the In­dian Arts and Crafts Act. They main­tain their in­no­cence.

Sub­se­quent in­dict­ments against four peo­ple trace Filipino-made jew­elry to Amer­i­can In­dian art gal­leries in Santa Fe and San Diego. The de­fen­dants could get max­i­mum penal­ties of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.

At left: New Mex­ico sen­a­tors oversee a hear­ing in Santa Fe on Fri­day about ef­forts to mod­ern­ize the In­dian Arts and Crafts Act. Above: fake Amer­i­can In­dian-styled jew­elry. Mor­gan Lee, As­so­ci­ated Press

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