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Targeting the Frauds of Native Jewelry and Art

The Protect Sovereign Native Art Initiative, launched in February, seeks to curb the manufacture, marketing and sale of fake Native jewelry and art.

Imagine spending $60,000 on Native jewelry only to discover that it is fake.

That’s what happened to one collector who recently made a purchase at a gallery specializing in Native jewelry. The jewelry, according to an indictment returned by a federal grand jury in February, was manufactured using cheap labor in the Philippines.

A new initiative in New Mexico promises to reverse this trend. The Protect Sovereign Native Art Initiative, which launched in February at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque, seeks to curb the manufacture, marketing and sale of fake Native American art.

The initiative, parented by the art security company Montibon Provenance International, Inc., aims to protect Native art, artifacts and antiquities from fraud, forgery, theft and counterfeiting of security documents.

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“There are three layers of problems here,” said Roy Montibon, owner of Montibon Provenance International. “When someone creates fake work, first of all, the real artists lose sales. Second, it damages the reputation of those doing the real work because the fake art is of lower quality. And third, collectors are being ripped off.”

Montibon, who is part Native Hawaiian, has spent his career working as an artist, teacher and vocal advocate of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. He launched the Protect Sovereign Native Art Initiative to combat a problem that has plagued the art market for centuries.

“The market for fake, unauthentic work is great, and it’s a problem that exists in the larger art world,” he said. “What we hope to do is create a world where fraudulent artwork is much less prevalent. Limiting fraudsters, in the long view, will create a better world for artists going forward.”

Montibon’s initiative, three years in the making, taps cutting-edge technologies to help collectors identify, secure and certify the authenticity of artwork produced by Native artists. It comes as the manufacture and sale of fraudulent Native art reaches unprecedented highs.

In February, five people were indicted for making, importing, marketing and distributing fake Native jewelry. The indictment identified 40 specific fraudulent acts—including the $60,000 exchange—for a total of more than $300,000 in sales of fake jewelry at stores in Albuquerque and Santa Fe.

The jewelry was manufactured in the Philippines, then marketed and sold as Native jewelry—sometimes in high-end galleries. The indictment, part of the largest investigation ever into fraudulent Native jewelry sales, targeted an international scheme to violate the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.

Montibon hopes his initiative curbs fraud before fake art reaches galleries. That means clamping down at every level, from artists to dealers to buyers. It also means building security and certification methods recognized around the globe.

“When fraudsters get the idea that they can replicate the look of something, they buy the real thing, then replicate a visual facsimile of someone else’s artwork,” he said. “Because it looks authentic, people buy it. Collectors in Europe and Asia are buying fake Native art and the tribes are not even aware they are losing sales to fake artists somewhere else.”

Montibon is poised to work with Native artists to provide state-of-the-art security documents that accompany all works of art. The initiative also calls for inconspicuously marking the art itself so it can be authenticated and its provenance—or chain of custody—can be traced.

“Every time a collector gets ripped off, it’s really their grandchildren who are getting ripped off,” Montibon said. “Ultimately, we’re making sure the collector of artwork is assured that what they’re buying is actually authentic. Every step of the way, this is being authenticated.”

The initiative also builds sovereignty for tribes and individual artists, said Steve Cadue, a former tribal leader of the Kickapoo Nation. Cadue is working as a strategic and cultural advisor for the Protect Sovereign Native Art Initiative.

“Artwork is a critical part of culture,” he said. “It’s part of our lives; it’s critical as our religion; it’s part of our self-government. Indian art exists as a matter of sovereignty.”

Cadue is calling on the federal government to crack down on violations of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. He also wants the government to work with tribes to regulate the market—much the way Indian gaming works.

“Indian casinos are authentic, enforced and well-regulated,” he said. “We know that if you do good regulation, follow the law and enforce the rights of Native Americans, everyone can benefit.”

Cadue also wants to see better education offered for artists and buyers alike.

“Fake art and appropriation leads to the desecration of peoples’ cultures,” he said. “Authentic Indian art can see a significant sales increase when the public or the buyer is assured that they’re buying authentic Native American work.”