With Indian art, it's often 'buyer beware'
Originally Published: July 12, 2007 9:58 p.m.
Read Joanna Dodder's related story, 'Federal law also can cause problems for Indians themselves' by clicking here. PRESCOTT - Prescott is not immune to the lucrative counterfeit American Indian art market.Sharlot Hall Museum Anthropologist Sandy Lynch, who manages this weekend's prestigious annual Prescott Indian Art Market at the museum, has an easier time spotting the fakes than the average buyer does. Lynch recently let the manager of a large Prescott retailer know that the store was selling fake Seri Indian ironwood carvings in violation of federal law. Considering that the members of the small Seri tribe carve their art by hand, it would be next to impossible for them to produce enough carvings for such a large retailer. That was Lynch's first clue, and retailers should be able to figure that out too, she said.Lynch also noted the comparatively poor quality of the carvings, along with the fact that some of the carvings were of animals that the Seri people would not see in their Mexican homeland along the Sea of Cortez.The price was another obvious clue."If you see one for $19.95, it ain't right," Lynch quipped. True Seri ironwood animal carvings start at about $100.These are all signs for buyers to be aware of too, Lynch noted. "A lot of this comes down to the buyer," agreed Don Owen, who ran the Santa Fe Indian Market for years and is moving to Camp Verde soon. "The main thing is to attend the right kind of shows, like at Sharlot Hall."The Prescott store manager put up a sign on the sale rack that let buyers know the carvings were not Seri, and then the store stopped carrying the products, Lynch related. The Seri have participated in past Prescott Indian Art Markets. They are struggling economically and depend strongly on their ironwood art sales, so this type of illegal trade is really hurting the whole tribe, Lynch said. It also is causing a shortage in ironwood trees in their region.This is just one small example of how endemic the fake American Indian arts and crafts trade has become, Lynch said.The U.S. Department of Commerce estimated in 1985 that the annual sales of Indian jewelry and crafts totals between $400 million and $800 million, and 20 percent of it was fake. Lynch figures that number was low.For 100 years, the federal government has been trying to prevent the sale of forged Indian work, but it has not been very successful, Lynch said.Congress enacted the 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act to reduce the problem, but Lynch and others say it suffers from a severe lack of enforcement. "They're not being enforced at all," said Tony Eriacho, a Zuni artist who is president of the non-profit Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture. The council's goal is to help consumers recognize fraudulent American Indian art. It offers advice on its Web site at www.ciaccouncil.org.Navajo artist Ernie Lister wants to see an Indian art law similar to Arizona's new illegal immigration law: take away the business license of people who sell fake Indian art.Lister sells his jewelry alongside other Indian jewelry at his Hotel Trading Post on Prescott's Whiskey Row. He also does appraisals for a fee."I have people coming in and giving me crap jewelry all the time," Lister said of the appraisals. "It's really an unenforced law."Sometimes American Indian businesses and pow wows sell these fake products, Eriacho said. Jesse Hummingbird, a Cherokee painter who volunteers on the Prescott Indian Art Market's Indian Advisory Council, say it is hard to prove that dealers are "knowingly" selling fake Indian art as the federal law requires.Lynch recently wrote a section about the history of American Indian art law for an upcoming Congressional Quarterly encyclopedia. The publication asked her to participate after seeing her doctoral dissertation on the business side of American Indian art.The existing law and its amendments are not so bad, but the obscure Indian Arts and Crafts Board depends on the FBI and Federal Trade Commission to investigate cases, and such cases seem to be low on their list of priorities, Lynch said.U.S. Customs is not enforcing its regulations that should prohibit the mass of foreign-made fake American Indian art from getting into this country, either, Lynch and Eriacho said. Federal law requires imports to have permanent marks displaying their country of origin.If U.S. Customs would force importers to ship these products back where they came from, that would help a lot, Lynch said. Contact the reporter at firstname.lastname@example.org