Fake Indian art flourishes as regulators eye legal actions
New Mexico Business Weekly - by Megan Kamerick NMBW Staff
The jewelry and baskets at the Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture’s booth at the Eldorado Hotel are beautiful, but most are forgeries.
Tony Eriacho and Pam Phillips, who run CIAC’s Western and Midwestern offices, respectively, speak with curious attendees in town for the Santa Fe Indian Market about the displays. The group is on a mission to teach buyers how to spot fake American Indian jewelry and crafts. That, in turn, protects Indian artists and ensures the continuation of these traditional art forms, Phillips says.
Unfortunately, that’s getting increasingly difficult as more sophisticated forgeries flood the market.
“In the ’70s, it was easy to tell the fakes,” she says.
One of the displays at the booth is an array of gemstones, only nine of which are real. She says a gemologist examined all of them and even he couldn’t find all the forgeries.
Another display features a variety of pieces in Native designs, most of which were manufactured in Asia. And it’s not just jewelry. Replicas of Navajo rugs are being made in India and Mexico. Baskets in the display come from Pakistan.
Phillips doesn’t have hard numbers on the sales of such fakery, but says they represent a billion dollars or more annually.
“It’s gone from being 20 percent of the market in the ’70s to 60 to 80 percent of the market,” she said.
State officials are taking notice. Recently, Attorney General Gary King filed two lawsuits against Santa Fe retailers of American Indian art for alleged violations of the New Mexico Indian Arts and Crafts Sales Act and the Unfair Practices Act, and for fraud or negligent misrepresentation.
The suits allege that Golden Bear Trading Inc. and Yousef Nassar, doing business as Santa Fe Indian Jewelry, sold pieces that were falsely represented as having been made by renowned Navajo artist Calvin Begay and that they gave discounts on the pieces that were in violation of state regulations governing pricing and price advertising.
Neither business would comment on the lawsuits. Phillip Sisneros, public information officer with the Attorney General’s office, says the state gathered information for the actions from several sources, including representatives from the CIAC and the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Board. He said the office does not discuss future plans for enforcement or prosecutorial actions, but added that King is “dedicating continuing resources to address this issue.”
“We can expect to see additional progress in efforts to protect consumers and Native artists in the future,” he says.
The Indian Arts and Crafts Board is working with other states on additional enforcement actions as well as the National Park Service, says Meredith Stanton, spokeswoman for the Board, which is under the U.S. Department of Interior.
CIAC launched in 1998, in part because the founders saw few results from the 1990 federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, Phillips says.
The group also works to connect artists directly with buyers through events such as the El Dorado show during Indian Market.
Eriacho, a member of the Zuni Pueblo, said CIAC held its first wholesale show in Denver this year and will do another one next March. It also will hold a retail show at Isleta Casino and Resort Nov. 15 and 16. CIAC plans to address the upcoming National Congress of American Indians in Phoenix on stopping the proliferation of fake Indian art, Phillips says.
The most important thing regulators can do right now is close a loophole in the U.S. Customs regulations that allows overseas importers of fake Indian jewelry to avoid putting a permanent stamp on a piece indicating its country of origin, she says.
The federal regulations state that items must carry such an indelible mark, unless it’s commercially or technically infeasible, she says. However, many fraudulent pieces are stamped with initials or other symbols that often trick buyers into thinking they are buying an authentic piece initialed by the artist.
“So they have proven it’s not infeasible,” Phillips says. “If we could just get that enforced it would be one thing that helps customers.”
Disclosure in everything is the key, she adds. Some buyers will see the “Made in China” stamp and not care because they like a piece. But at least they will know where it came from.
How to ensure you're buying authentic Am. Indian arts and crafts Buy directly from the artist whenever possible.
Get an original receipt that includes the name, full address and phone number of the business/artist, tribal affiliation, a specific description of the purchase, including the materials used, and the value of the purchase.
Know these definitions:
“Indian handmade” or “authentic Indian arts and crafts” mean any product that is entirely made by American Indian hand labor, using manually controlled methods, and not by a machine.
“Indian crafted” is any item that is made only in part by an American Indian, or that is partly or completely made by an Indian using machines.
If a seller says an item is “authentic Indian art” or that it is “Indian handmade,” ask the seller to write that on your receipt.
If that representation is false, the seller has violated the New Mexico Indian Arts and Crafts Sales Act, entitling you to repayment of the purchase price if you return the item.
Sources: Council on Indigenous Arts and Culture and the Consumer Protection Division of the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office
Council on Indigenous Arts and Culture http://www.ciaccouncil.org/
Indian Arts and Crafts Board/ U.S. Department of Interior http://www.iacb.doi.gov/
Indian Arts and Crafts Association www.iaca.com
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