Fed crackdown puts tribal artifact dealers on edge
SANTA FE, N.M. — An intensifying federal investigation into the sale of Native American artifacts has brought fear and uncertainty to one of the nation’s largest and longest-running Indian artifact shows.
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.
The aisles of the exhibit hall at the 31st annual Whitehawk Antique Show were crowded with collectors, 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.
Amid grumbling about government meddling, the tension was evident.
“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 show.
Hundreds of prospective buyers crowded into the exhibit space Tuesday 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. Twenty-five people face felony charges — two of them have committed suicide.
On Tuesday, 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.
On Wednesday, more than 20 government agents, archaeologists and curators descended on a home in Durango, Colo., to haul away a lifetime collection from 74-year-old Carl “Vern” Crites and his wife.
Authorities said the couple voluntarily turned over the collection, which one agent described as staggering. Court papers say items include ancient Anasazi prayer sticks, ivory beads and a ceremonial war club.
Crites was among those indicted on charges of trafficking, theft and grave desecration.
The dealers at the Santa Fe 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.
Knox shrugged off the concerns, 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 and donating it to museums to build Indian collections. He said despite the picture federal investigators have painted of the trade, 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.
Whitehawk Antique Shows, whitehawkshows.com
Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association, www.atada.org
Associated Press reporter Paul Foy in Salt Lake City contributed to this story.
Filed under Legal Proceedings, News | Tags: Asia, Criminal, Fairs And Festivals, India, Liability, New Mexico, North America, Recreation And Leisure, Santa Fe, South Asia, United States, Visual Arts And Design | Comment Below