Native American jewelry is a ubiquitous part of the downtown Scottsdale experience.
But the turquoise pendants, handcrafted silver necklaces and other wares populating stores and galleries here are not created equal.
The pieces, which typically cost from hundreds to tens of thousands of dollars, are difficult to authenticate for the average buyer and are the subject of a rampant counterfeit market – as a recent case in New Mexico with ties to Scottsdale highlights.
Forged Native American jewelry, much of which is produced in Asia, is sold in the U.S. as Indian-made.
The forged jewelry – often passed off as made by artists of Hopi, Zuni or Navajo ancestry – costs much less to produce than actual Native American art, giving the stores that sell it a tidy profit.
In August 2018, U.S. District Judge Judith C. Herrera sentenced Nael Ali to six months in prison after Ali pled guilty to two felony charges that he violated the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act.
Ali also had to pay $9,048 in restitution.
The law “prohibits the offer or display for sale, or the sale of any good in a manner that falsely suggests that it is Indian produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian or Indian tribe,” according to the United States Attorney for New Mexico.
The law, first passed in 1935, covers any Indian or Indian-style arts and crafts produced since that year. It does not prohibit artists or stores from selling Native American-style or Southwestern jewelry, provided the country of origin is clearly identified.
However, some wholesalers and retailers are willing to go to great lengths to obscure the origins of counterfeit jewelry.
Bob Gallegos, a board member of ATADA, said some counterfeiters have gone so far as to rename a town in the Philippines “Zuni” so it could carry a “made in Zuni” label.
ATADA is a national organization of tribal art dealers and collectors that establishes ethical and responsible trading practices.
According to a federal indictment in the New Mexico case, Ali owned galleries in Albuquerque and Scottsdale and allegedly purchased $85,369 worth of Native American-style jewelry manufactured in the Philippines from a seller named Imad Manassara, who was also a defendant in the case.
Ali allegedly purchased $10,165 worth of items using checks from Scottsdale-based Galleria Azul, which he operated in historic Old Town from November 2012 to June 2014, according to the indictment.
Ali admitted that he mixed jewelry from the Philippines with jewelry created by Native American artists at one of his New Mexico stores and directed a staff member to display and sell it “as if it was Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian tribe," according to the plea deal.
In a complaint filed in New Mexico in a separate ongoing case against an alleged counterfeit jewelry importer known as Sterling Islands, federal prosecutors alleged that Ali or his employees sold counterfeit jewelry to an undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife agent at his stores, including the Scottsdale location.
The indictment was not a surprise to Alston Neal, who owns Territorial Indian Arts & Antiques with his wife.
“Some of the people involved in that bust got their start on Fifth Avenue,” Neal said, referring to Scottsdale’s popular shopping district.
Neal, whose mother started selling Native American wares in the 1930s, has operated on Main Street since 1969, starting in historic Old Town Scottsdale before moving into the Arts District.
Neal’s store is one of 10 shops in Scottsdale that are listed in the ATADA membership directory. The full directory is at atada.org.
He said the forgery issue is nothing new and retailers selling counterfeits can turn much larger profits than stores that sell genuine Indian jewelry because fakes often use cheaper raw materials, such as synthetic turquoise, and are manufactured in bulk overseas with cheap labor.
Authentic Native American jewelry is expensive because of the quality of materials and the time it takes an artist to craft a single piece.
Schwan Khansarian, owner of Ideal Collection in historic Old Town, said that artists he employs can spend days, or even weeks, crafting a single piece of jewelry.
Ideal Collection hires Native American artists from several different tribes to produce works sold in their store.
Neal said counterfeit Navajo blankets made using the same techniques employed by Navajo craftspeople appeared in the market in the 1960s, followed by counterfeit Zuni jewelry in the late-1960s and early 1970s.
Neal said that until the 1990s, woven baskets produced by Tohono O’odham, or Papago, craftspeople were popular until counterfeits from Pakistan flooded the market.
“It totally wiped out the market,” he said.
Zuni jewelry, including silver and turquoise pendants and broaches, is still popular with customers, making it a frequent target for counterfeiters along with Hopi and Navajo items.
Neal said that he often appraises jewelry for customers and walk-ins at his shop.
Years ago, he was hesitant to look at jewelry he suspected of being counterfeit because there was a real chance of retribution by other area store owners who were selling counterfeits.
Neal’s fears are not unfounded.
According to a report by National Geographic, the decades-long sale of fake Native American jewelry has ties to organized crime.
Counterfeit jewelry is typically sold at a cheaper price than its authentic counterparts, but there is still some gamesmanship at play. For example, some counterfeits carry high price tags. Sellers then discount that price to convince buyers they are getting a good deal.
“The big fake discount thing is a red flag,” Neal said.
“The knockoffs are generally less money,” said Bruce McGee, director of retail sales at the Heard Museum in Phoenix. “People come in all the time, and they say they bought a piece for far less money then we have it listed. There is always a catch to too good a deal.”
The flood of counterfeits inflict real harm on the artists producing work inspired by their own tribal ancestry.
“There are the actual craftsmen from Zuni being hurt, because the replicas are so close and sold for so much less,” Gallegos said, noting that Philippines products can cost a tenth of the price of authentic jewelry.
The FBI, which worked on the Ali case in New Mexico, acknowledged the financial importance of this artwork to many tribes.
“Native American art is more than stunning jewelry. It also is a critical source of income for the many different tribes that create it and share with the world their culture and history,” said Special Agent in Charge James C. Langenberg of the FBI’s Albuquerque Division.
Rosemarie Talahongva, a Hopi consultant working with Ideal Collection, said many Native American artists depend on their artwork to remain engaged with traditional tribal practices.
“(The Hopi) still have our traditional calendar and so in order to maintain that, you almost can’t have a regular full-time job unless you have a generous leave package,” Talahongva said.
She said that she is gone from work for a full week two to four times a year because of ceremonies.
“What the jewelry does is allow those artists to actually have the financial means to be able to do with what they need to do,” Talahongva said.
Stopping the flow of forgeries is not simple.
Overseas operations have become so proficient that many of the counterfeits are indistinguishable from the real thing.
“We have people come into us every day,” said McGee. “We do not do appraisals, but we do tell people what they have, and we find a lot of Asian-made product.”
Gallegos said that those unfamiliar with the intricacies of Zuni jewelry are unlikely to see the difference.
“Casual or average Native American jewelry aficionados will not know,” he said, adding that the origins are “sometimes totally misrepresented and sometimes it is presented in showcases that have real jewelry and sellers don’t bother distinguishing between the two.”
Gallegos said that Zuni artists typically sign or stamp their work, so buyers can look for an artist’s initials or signature to verify a piece’s legitimacy.
However, the Ali case has shown that even this is not a 100 percent guarantee of authenticity.
According to a federal indictment, some of the counterfeit pieces that Ali’s employees allegedly sold included a “CK” stamp, passed off as jewelry created by a fictitious Navajo artist named Calvin Kee.
“It’s really bad,” he said. “You can’t expect everyone to be able to tell the difference between real turquoise, stabilized turquoise or man-made turquoise.”
Neal and McGee advise that consumers only work with dealers that they trust or have a reputable history.
Gallegos said he wants to work with various tribes to create educational materials for buyers.
“I would like to see more outreach with the different communities that show the examples of fakes to show at tradeshows,” he said. “We need to try to figure out how to pass along enough information to potential buyers.”
He already plans to meet with Curtis Quam, a Zuni museum technician and cultural educator, to begin developing those efforts.
All ATADA members have agreed to a seller’s guarantee, included in their bylaws, that includes a guarantee of return and refund if information provided about a sold piece is found to be inaccurate.