Fake Indian art prompts New Mexico proposal to certify authentic work

Juanita L. Peters sits on a sidewalk beneath the historic portal in Albuquerque's Old Town, hoping the few tourists wandering the plaza will stop to look at her handmade turquoise earrings and necklaces. A proposal under consideration by the New Mexico Legislature could make things easier for the Santo Domingo Pueblo resident and other American Indian artists who rely on their crafts to make a living.

The bill would set aside funding for the state Licensing and Regulation Department to study and propose rules to establish a certification stamp for arts and crafts made by Indians in New Mexico. The aim is to boost sales and ensure the expanding market isn't tainted by fakes.

One other state, Alaska, sponsors a similar program guaranteeing buyers that items bearing a "Silver Hand" seal are handcrafted by an Alaskan Eskimo, Aleut or other Indian artist.

The New Mexico legislation stems from complaints about imitation art sold in Santa Fe and Gallup, which is known as a hub for collectible jewelry produced by artists from nearby Zuni Pueblo, the Navajo Nation and the Hopi reservation in eastern Arizona.

Time is running out for the proposal. The Legislature adjourns Thursday and a US$70,000 ( Ђ 58,480) appropriation to study the certification plan is tied up in a budget bill that's been criticized by Gov. Bill Richardson. State and federal laws already prohibit misrepresenting fake Indian art or jewelry as authentic, but Lundstrom, a Democrat from Gallup, said they aren't enough. "It's a big problem. There's no way to regulate it."

The Indian art market has estimated sales of more than US$1 billion ( Ђ 840 million) nationally. Squash blossom necklaces and bolo ties can be found at roadside stands across the Navajo Nation, which spans parts of Arizona, New Mexico and Utah. Trading posts along Route 66 in western New Mexico sell baskets and rugs as well as jewelry from the Zuni and Hopi tribes. Shops in plazas in Albuquerque and Santa Fe are filled with fetish necklaces, silver bracelets, rings, sand paintings, pottery and kachinas.

Some already come with cards that read: "Certificate of authenticity. Guaranteed Native American made." "With the stamp (under consideration), that is like icing on the cake," said Michael Cerletti, New Mexico's tourism secretary.

"It would be like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval," said Cerletti, adding that Indian culture is one of the top reasons people visit the state. Michael Garcia, a lapidary artist and vice chairman of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, said previous attempts at a certification program in New Mexico didn't work.

"To me, the problem is not with identifying the art and who makes it. The problem is the fakes. They need to stop it at the borders," he said. Garcia stopped making jewelry in the late 1970s because imported imitation pieces flooded the U.S. market. He started up again after the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which prohibits sellers from misrepresenting imitation art or jewelry as genuine, was passed in 1990.

But he still hears instances of Indian work being copied. "I call it ripping off a culture," he said. A key to stopping the market from being infiltrated by fakes is awareness, Garcia said.

"Know who you're buying from. Buy direct from the artist. If you buy from a gallery, ask where the artist is from," he said. Garcia and the arts association are working to get Indian artists more involved with museums and galleries nationwide to open markets and educate buyers.

And the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, which oversees the federal act, is working with attorneys general on brochures aimed at protecting authentic Indian art. Garcia and others pointed out that Santa Fe, Albuquerque's Old Town and other tourist destinations would not be what they are today without Indian art. "My customers come here for the art, especially the art," said Tom Baker, owner of Tanner Chaney Gallery in Albuquerque. "It's huge. How do you put a price tag on it?", reports the AP.


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