Action taken against fake Native artwork

Is that art really real?

Posted: Sunday, October 13, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- An effort to help consumers identify Alaska Native-made products and get people to report fakes has resulted in a handful of investigations by the Federal Trade Commission.

Some 950,000 brochures and post cards were distributed in Alaska communities, gift shops, art galleries and on cruise ships this tourist season to help visitors tell the difference from genuine Alaska Native arts and crafts from imitations, said Chuck Harwood, FTC regional director in Seattle.

The campaign cost $46,000 and spurred reports from consumers who believed they may have been duped into buying counterfeit Alaska Native-made arts or crafts. Other reports came from former employees of Alaska gift shops reporting their old bosses, Harwood said.

Harwood told the Alaska Journal of Commerce he could not go into detail because the cases are pending.

The state attorney general's office, the Alaska State Council on the Arts and the U.S. Department of Interior's Indian Arts and Crafts Board joined the FTC in the campaign. While it only resulted in a few tips, it's a big start, Harwood said.

''It's difficult to get a handle on the scope of this problem,'' Harwood said. ''A handful of reports is major ... We're getting people to report, so it's a success.''

Alaska Native art is a multimillion dollar industry. Selling fake pieces as genuine is a violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act of 1990.

The agency has done investigative work in Alaska in the past, sending ''undercover shoppers'' into gift shops and galleries. That method proved unsuccessful, Harwood said.

''We much prefer people to give us a call and tell us of problems,'' Harwood said. ''It makes for a cleaner case.''

Violators are subject to fines or prison. Only one case in the last few years has been prosecuted in Alaska. Jack Tripp, a Juneau gift shop owner, was fined $20,000 in 1996 for misrepresenting Alaska Native art, Harwood said.

The art was made by Asian artists who used Eskimo-like names to sign their pieces, Harwood said.

The public education campaign that began last spring was in part to help bring notice to the state's Silver Hand program, established in 1961 to help identify Alaska Native arts and crafts.

The program uses a hand-shaped logo on a tag or sticker to identify Alaska Native art as authentic to protect the consumer and the artist.

Saunders McNeill, Native arts program director at the state Council on the Arts, said the program is funded at $50,000 annually and represents about 1,400 certified artists. The Alaska State Council on the Arts has managed the program since 1998.

Artists qualify by being at least a quarter Alaska Native. They must be residents and use mainly natural materials, according to the program's guidelines.

However, many Alaska Native artists do not participate. Sometimes shop owners remove Silver Hand certification because it raises questions for other legitimate Alaska Native-made art, McNeill said.

Nearly all Silver Hand artists don't claim the sale of their work as income. Of those participating in the Silver Hand program, ''99 percent don't have business licenses,'' McNeill said.

Rita Holden, manager of One People Gifts in downtown Anchorage, said the Silver Hand program does little for Native artists.

''Some of our nicest work, frankly, comes from street people,'' Holden said. ''They are not about to apply for that silly little paw. They think it's dumb.''

Rick Beasley, a Tlingit artist, said a better method would be to clearly label all arts or crafts that are not made by Alaska Natives, Beasley said.

FTC's Harwood said under federal law, artwork and crafts, like anything else imported in the United States must be labeled by country of origin. But once checked through U.S. Customs, it's legal to remove the identifying tags, Harwood said.

Beyond labeling, the best safeguard is art dealer's veracity, Beasley said.

Customers need to know who made the art before it is rung up at the cash register, Beasley said.



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