SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The recent spread of fake Native American art and jewelry has shown the need to update how the federal government enforces laws to protect tribal artists from fraud that undercuts the value of their work, according to two U.S. senators gathering ideas Friday.
New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich were seeking input Friday from top federal officials responsible for enforcement of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act at a meeting in Santa Fe. The act makes it a crime to falsely market and sell art as Native American-made when it is not. Calls to modernize enforcement provisions have been spurred by revelations about the spread of fake Indian art.
Udall said indictments in the case have shined a bright light on decades-old difficulties.
"We've got a serious problem on our hands," Udall said in advance of the hearing. "Scammers are flooding markets with fake Indian arts and crafts — devaluing Native art and forcing Native Americans to give up their time-honored crafts."
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.
Meridith Stanton, executive director of the Interior Department's Indian Arts and Crafts Board, said President Donald Trump's administration has yet to review the effectiveness of the act.
Stanton's office attends events such as Santa Fe's summer Indian Market to educate shoppers and brokers about provisions of the law that applies to Indian-style traditional and contemporary arts and crafts produced after 1935.
"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.
Federal prosecutors in New Mexico are preparing for two trials in an ambitious investigation that traced falsified Native American art from manufacturers in the Philippines to galleries across the United States, from Santa Fe to Virginia and Alaska.
In October 2015, federal agents raided Indian art galleries in Albuquerque, Gallup, New Mexico, and Calistoga, California, to seize counterfeits and evidence.
Authorities have accused Nael Ali, owner of two Indian art galleries in the Old Town neighborhood of Albuquerque and another in Scottsdale, Arizona, of attributing jewelry to specific Navajo craftsman when it was actually made in the Philippines. Unwitting buyers included a gallery in Virginia and the Oneida tribe in upstate New York.
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 counterfeit Indian jewelry from manufacturers in a village in the Philippines to galleries in Santa Fe and San Diego. The defendants could get maximum penalties of five years in prison and a $250,000 fine.