Millions in Fake Native Art and Shark-Infested Waters
During the 1970s, Cheyenne-Arapaho artist Charlie Pratt built a reputation on his exquisite bronze chess sets that featured iconic adversaries like cowboys and Indians.
Pratt, a self-taught artist, sold his art in galleries across the Southwest, earning praise and prestige for his unique work. That is, until someone stole the designs and began selling them as his own.
“Charlie sold one or two copies of his cowboys and Indians, and then his chess set started appearing in silver and selling for large amounts of money,” said Harvey Pratt, Charlie’s younger brother and chairman of the Interior Department’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board. “Someone was copying and selling his work, as Native American art.”
Pratt took the imposter to court in the late 1970s, said Harvey, who is also a celebrated artist. Pratt won and the court ordered the defendant to pay royalties and stop making the chess sets.
“My brother met this guy later, socially, and the guy said he’d been doing this for 30 years and no one had challenged him before,” Harvey said. “People make copies of Indian art and sell it illegally. They take their work and their name. A lot of Natives don’t have the assets or financial means to protect their work, to take people to court.”
Forty years after Pratt’s win in court, many Native artists still face the same obstacles to protect their art—and their names—from fraud. Artists and advocates met with federal lawmakers during a three-hour hearing July 7 in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where they demanded heavier crackdowns on counterfeit Native art.
The hearing came 27 years after Congress passed the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990, a truth-in-advertising law that prohibits misrepresentation in the marketing of Indian products. Some of the biggest names in Native art testified during the hearing, hosted by the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs and held in the home of the Santa Fe Indian Market, the country’s oldest and largest Native American arts venue.
Dallin Maybee, CEO of the Southwestern Association for Indian Arts, which produces the annual Santa Fe Indian Market, called on the federal government to step up its enforcement of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. The sale of fake Indian art harms both artists and customers, he told U.S. Sen. Tom Udall, a New Mexico Democrat and vice chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
“Artists are grateful for the enforcement efforts that have been made to date,” Maybee said. “But I am sure that the testimony heard today will reflect a desire for increased resources for continued and ongoing enforcement efforts.”
The hearing also came as a high-profile case involving fraudulent art sales at galleries in New Mexico and California is pending in federal court. In 2015, federal agents raided galleries in Albuquerque, Gallup and Santa Fe and seized Filipino-made jewelry marketed as Native.
Six people were indicted in the investigation, said William Woody, chief of the law enforcement office at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which pilots the enforcement of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. If convicted of federal charges, each faces a fine of $250,000 and five years in prison.
But Woody called the fine a “pittance.” The seized items have a wholesale value of $11 million—and a much higher retail value, he told senators July 7.
Woody estimated that as much as 80 percent of Native art sold in the global market is fake. This “drives legitimate Native American artists out of a flooded market,” he said.
Federal officials also used the hearing to call for changes to the law. Stricter language would allow for tougher investigations, including the use of wiretapping to prove that dealers and retailers are knowingly marketing and selling fraudulent art.
Demand for Native art has skyrocketed during the past few decades, said David Bradley, a Chippewa artist and anti-fraud activist who was instrumental in getting the Indian Arts and Crafts Act passed in 1990. As the popularity of Native art increases, so does the market for fake Native art.
Since 1922, the Santa Fe Indian Market has gathered artists and customers alike, turning New Mexico’s tiny capital city into the “unofficial capital of Indian art,” Bradley told ICMN in a phone interview. During the 1980s, Santa Fe played host to a “Southwest art frenzy”—a flurry of buying and selling that still occurs on an annual basis.
The Indian market comes at the peak of the tourism season, drawing more than 100,000 people to downtown Santa Fe in late August. Artists lucky enough to get their own booths at the market can pull in most of their yearly income during the event, Bradley said, and collectors come from all over the world specifically to buy the work of top Indian artists.
But the event, historically, was fraught with fraud, Bradley said. Prior to 1990, even some of the most influential galleries contributed to the sale of fake Native art.
“Needless to say, where there is lots of easy money, the sharks and con artists are going to gather to take the biggest share of the pie that they can get,” Bradley said. “Many galleries encouraged their con artists to find or manufacture an Indian in their family tree.”
The Indian Arts and Crafts Act promised to curb some of the fraud, Bradley said. Now, most Indian markets and gallery owners require artists and dealers to show credentials, but without stricter enforcement of the law, fraud will continue to be a problem.
“The federal Indian Arts and Crafts law has made a big difference in how art shows do business,” Bradley said. “But it doesn’t go far enough. There is almost no enforcement of the law, despite widespread fraud that continues.”
Sen. Udall agreed that the law needs to be updated and more must be done to stop fraud. In a statement issued after the hearing, Udall suggested federal and local leaders work together to combat the marketing and sale of fake Native art.
“This rampant and shocking illegal trade is destabilizing the Native art market, devaluing Native American art and forcing Native Americans to quit their crafts — and it must be stopped,” he said. “We must take action to stop this assault on artists’ ability to carry on deeply significant traditions that have helped hold families and communities together for generations.”