SANTA FE, N.M. – An intensifying federal investigation into the sale of Native American artifacts has cloaked the market in a fog of fear and uncertainty.
Wealthy collectors are more cautious about buying artifacts for fear of criminal liability, and reputable dealers say they’re working double time to prove their legitimacy after being wrongly lumped together with looters and gravediggers.
Amid grumbling about government meddling, the tension was evident Aug. 18 at one of the nation’s largest and longest running Indian artifact shows.
“I think a lot of people are just scared because there’s a lot of misconception about whether this stuff is legal or illegal,” said Jeff Hammond, a private collector and dealer who was displaying prehistoric pots at the 31st Annual Whitehawk Antique Show.
Hundreds of prospective buyers crowded into the exhibit space to get a look at the artifacts, from a rare Sikyatki polychrome jar to bead-adorned moccasins, silver jewelry, painted animal hides and woven baskets.
While there was talk about the beauty and rarity of some items, the buzz was all about the federal crackdown on the trafficking of relics in the Four Corners region, an area rich in prehistoric archaeological sites and artifacts.
A two-year undercover investigation became public in June with raids on homes and businesses throughout the region. More than 20 people were arrested and indicted on allegations of taking the goods illegally.
On Aug. 18, a New Mexico man indicted in the case pleaded not guilty in federal court in Salt Lake City. David Waite, 61, of Albuquerque faces charges of trafficking, transporting stolen goods and theft for selling a cache of 24 knife points taken from federal lands in Utah.
The dealers at the show, many of whom have been collecting and selling Indian artifacts for more than two decades, said they were concerned about their reputations because of a growing public perception that anyone involved in the trade could be involved with the criminal element that’s being targeted by federal agents.
“Are there people doing bad things? Yes. And I’m sure the court system will give them what they deserve,” said Walter Knox, a dealer who runs an upscale gallery in Scottsdale, Ariz. “But since this started, I’m still getting checked a lot, and it’s getting kind of silly.”
Every week, Knox said he has to run someone out of his gallery for trying to sell him stolen pots.
“I post my rules so people know I’m not going to deal with anything shady,” said Knox, a retired police officer.
The aisles of the exhibit hall were crowded with collectors Aug. 18, including business leaders and Santa Fe’s elite. There were hugs and handshakes from the dealers for their regular customers, but rumors also were circulating about suspicious vans outside and undercover federal agents.
Knox shrugged it off, saying the caliber of dealers at the show is such that they have nothing to worry about.
While they don’t condone looting or the trafficking of illegal artifacts, many dealers said the federal government has been liberal in its interpretation of archaeological resource protection laws and heavy-handed in its effort to crack down.
Mac Grimmer, a Santa Fe dealer who has helped assemble many antique Indian art collections, said there have been crackdowns in the past and the market eventually settles down. But this could be different, he said.
While prehistoric artifacts are only a small percentage of the Indian art market, Grimmer said the perception that buying Indian artifacts in general could lead to jail time or a visit from federal agents has had a chilling effect.
“The part that nobody seems to understand is that there is a bigger contemporary Indian art market. If you continue to beat down on ‘Indian art,’ it’s going to slop over onto that contemporary art and destroy this very lucrative and very large market that the American Indian population has built up,” he said.
Grimmer and the other dealers said they go to great lengths to ensure that the artifacts they buy and sell have a legitimate history, including details on when and from where they were collected.
For Knox, many pots in his collections were acquired from museums or digs on private land.
One of Knox’s clients has spent more than $1 million buying pottery for the purpose of donating it to museums to build Indian collections. He said despite the picture painted of the trade by federal investigators, he and his fellow dealers are not camouflage-wearing felons who loot sites under the cover of darkness.
“We’re the ones who love this stuff, who clean it and care for it,” he said. “That’s what people are doing, preserving history. And there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it.”
Hammond added that there’s no reason to consider a shady deal or illegal activity when there are so many legitimate Indian artifacts on the market.
“If you really want to do this and not look over your shoulder and always have to watch your back and worry about things, you just need to stay on the right side,” he said.
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