Countering the Counterfeit Art Market

Santa Fe commits to eliminating the market for Native American fakes and forgeries

Though Google couldn't immediately confirm the rumors about a town in China renamed "Zuni," so products manufactured there can masquerade as made by members of the Zuni tribe, the search did turn up online retail suppliers with squash blossom necklaces and turquoise bolo ties advertised as Zuni jewelry, but made in China.

Mayor Javier Gonzales announced on Tuesday the beginnings of an effort to craft a city ordinance to crack down on the sale of these forgeries on the streets of Santa Fe. First and foremost, he says, comes protecting Native American artists who depend on the sales of their art at fair market value, but Santa Fe's reputation as a destination for high-quality Native American art—the hand-built traditions of oral cultures—is also at stake.

"This reputation began and continues today thanks to the talents of our Native American artists who, generation after generation, have passed down their artistic traditions, refined them and built upon them," the mayor said at a press conference announcing the effort. "It is in our interest and the interest of the artists themselves to do what we can to help protect these traditions and ensure that the artists can continue to build a livelihood from their craft. … We've seen already this year that counterfeit art is not a myth. It is real, it is in Santa Fe and it is impacting artists across the region."

While the city can't organize a sting like the feds can—and did earlier this year when federal law enforcement officers searched several stores in Santa Fe for evidence in a case that saw three people indicted on the suspicion of selling Filipiino-made jewelry as Native American—it can add requirements to city code to make it tougher to sell forgeries that undercut the market for traditional Native American arts and crafts.

"It's unfair that they invest time, effort, years of tradition in a piece of art that they want to share with the world, to have a counterfeit piece of art that is selling for far less that doesn't represent anywhere near the traditions of the artist," Gonzales said. In addition, he says, he's received letters from tourists who discovered after returning from Santa Fe that what they thought they bought as authentic Native art was not authentic at all, and that puts Santa Fe's image as a destination for high-quality, authentic art at risk.

"Then we turn into just another town that sells lots of jewelry at heavily discounted prices," he said.

Federal law bans the misrepresentation of art or crafts as made by Native Americans when they are not, and punishes those who violate that law with up to $250,000 in fines and a five-year prison sentence, but the city wanted to take measures of its own. The ordinance, which the mayor plans to introduce and see carried through City Council over the first half of next year, ready to be in place by early summer when the tourist market peaks, calls for some identifying details that should make it tougher to market fakes as the real deal. The first step will be to create a "cultural district," which will likely share some territory with the city's historic district, and then require any store within those boundaries to include the name of the artist, the place of origin and the materials used with every piece of art sold as Native American. Those who violate the ordinance may see their business license revoked.

"We don't have the power to enforce authenticity, but we do have the power to set conditions on having a business license and operating a business in the city of Santa Fe," the mayor tells SFR.

The issue is a concern for tribal members, artists, and all those working to maintain aspects of tribal culture, School for Advanced Research Indian Arts Research Center Director Brian Vallo said during the press event, "Although the mayor says the city might not have the teeth…I'm sure this will set the stage for some really positive outcomes."

"It's just all about truth in representation," Shanan Campbell Wells, owner of Sorrel Sky Gallery, tells SFR.

Her father, former US Sen. Ben Nighthorse-Campbell, co-authored the Indian Arts and Crafts Act that protects Native arts. Wells says she thinks this measure will work to curb a market for forgeries that's growing alongside the market for all arts as business rebounds from the recession.

"It is an overriding concern, fear and passion among Native artists that so many vendors right here in Santa Fe sell inauthentic objects that are made in other countries, that are materials—we don't know what they are," says Joan Caballero, an appraiser based in Santa Fe who's appeared on Antiques Roadshow as an expert in tribal art, and former board member of Southwest Association of Indian Arts, which puts on the Indian Market. "All this stuff is manufactured instead of handmade. The stones are bogus and the names that they attribute to the artists are bogus as well, and this cuts into not just the Native Americans' business but to who they are as a culture, as a person."

She's worked with people who ask her to appraise their steal of a deal on Native American art and had to tell them their purchases are not even worth the deeply discounted prices they paid.

"It's probably hundreds of millions, if not billions, these shop keepers are making on fakes," she says.

Her advice for avoiding that scenario: know your dealer, shop at museums or their recommendations, ask 15 to 20 questions about the product and get those answers, and a return guarantee, written with the receipt.

The expectation is that in addition to equipping the city's code enforcement team with this new ordinance, businesses will report illegal practices they see among other vendors. Those code enforcement officers won't necessarily become or need to be experts in Native art; the emphasis is on disclosure. If suspicion extends past failure to disclose, they'll call in the feds.

Though federal laws protecting Native artists have long been on the books, enforcement has been lax, Nighthorse Campbell said via a written statement read by Wells. He expressed hopes the mayor's efforts, the first anyone knows of in the country to bring this commitment to city code, will "highlight the importance of authenticating Native American arts and crafts to both the millions of visitors who come to Santa Fe and reassure Native artists that their rights under federal law are being protected."

The city and the state can't afford to comprise their reputation as a source for authentic Native American art, New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs Secretary Veronica Gonzales said during the press conference announcing the city's effort to crack down on forgeries. The arts industries provide one in 18 jobs in the state, according to a University of New Mexico Bureau of Business & Economic Research study, and generate $137.1 million in revenue.

"Tourism is a huge industry for Santa Fe. It generates a large amount of gross receipts dollars that we're highly dependent on and part of what makes Santa Fe unique and distinguishes us from other communities around the world is the quality and the authenticity of the art that is sold in Santa Fe and, of course, I think what further distinguishes Santa Fe many communities around the world is the presence of the Indigenous culture, the Native American community," Mayor Gonzales tells SFR. "It's important that we do everything we can to not only promote Santa Fe as a city of artists but that we assure that those artists are protected when it comes to fraudulent efforts or efforts by unscrupulous business owners to sell counterfeit art, particularly as we announced today in the Native American community."

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