The Indian Arts and Crafts Act, first passed in 1935 and revised in 1990, made misrepresenting retail arts and craft items as Native American, when in fact they were not a federal crime. For a first time violation of the Act, an individual can face civil or criminal penalties up to a $250,000 fine or a 5-year prison term, or both. If a business violates the Act, it can face civil penalties or can be prosecuted and fined up to $1,000,000.
It is estimated that gross sales for the Native American arts and crafts industry is in excess of $1 billion. Recently, an undercover sting operation (named Al Zuni) has unraveled the world’s largest Native American art fraud scheme and revealed that many of the “authentic” crafts come from overseas factories in the Philippines. As a result, it now appears that one jewelry dealer, Nael Ali, will be the first individual facing charges since the Arts and Crafts Act’s inception.
In March of 2012, the Office of Law Enforcement for the South West Region of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services created Operation Al Zuni. Later that year, Special Agent Russel Stanford intercepted a shipment from Fashion Accessories 4 U (a factory in the Philippines) heading to Sterling Islands (an Albuquerque import company). Inside the shipment were Native American jewelry replicas — Agent Stanford marked them with an invisible ink pen and sent them on their way. A few months later, Stanford (posing as a jewelry dealer), entered Nael Ali’s Gallery 8 store and purchased two rings stamped with the initials CK. According to the seller, the initials stood for a Navajo jeweler Calvin Kee. However, once the rings were put under ultraviolet light, Stanford confirmed that these were from the shipment of fakes he tagged a few months earlier… Oh, in case you are wondering, there is no known Navajo jeweler by the name of Calvin Kee.
By 2015, the operation went public and a number of jewelry and Indian art stores were raided in New Mexico and California. Over 350,000 pieces of jewelry, with an estimated value of $35M, were seized. In addition, Nael Ali and Mohammad Manasra (a traveling jewelry seller) were arrested and became the first jewelry dealers to be charged with violating the act.
This appears to be just the tip of the iceberg and we hope that law enforcement will take a tough stand and start cleaning up this market.