Counterfeits peddled as real Indian art

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Larry Barker Investigates

SANTA FE (KRQE) – They are fakes and frauds, counterfeits designed to deceive. But, it’s not just deception.

It’s a crime to misrepresent Native American arts and crafts, in some cases a felony.

A Texas tourist paid $480 for a squash blossom necklace purchased from a now-defunct Santa Fe gift shop. However, tests show the stones, represented as lapis, are actually plastic imitations.

“I would say they are pretty good fakes,” said Michael Spilde, a University of New Mexico scientist who examined the purported gemstones under an electron microscope.

And then there’s turquoise. It may not sparkle like diamonds or glitter like gold, but this gemstone is the basis for an industry that pumps millions of dollars into the New Mexico economy.

It doesn’t look like much at the mine, but once it’s cut and polished, turquoise is recognized worldwide for its beauty in Indian arts and crafts. Joe Dan Lowry, literally, wrote the book–actually two books–on turquoise.

“Turquoise is the people’s gemstone,” Lowery told KRQE News 13.  “They’re buying the color, they’re buying the beauty, they’re buying the mystique of what turquoise represents.”

Natural turquoise can be pricey. But not all pricey turquoise is the real deal. For example, a rare gem may be worth $20,000 while a cheap imitation is worth less than $10.

The illegal misrepresentation of Indian arts and crafts is a huge underground business in New Mexico.

A cabochon looks like different semiprecious stones. In fact the shaped and highly polished object is a $2 piece of plastic made in China.

“The consumer thinks that this artist or this store is selling them a pretty rarity,” Lowry said.  “Instead they are getting pure plastic.”

Other counterfeits are made out of low-grade turquoise, which resembles chalk. If you pump in plastic resins and epoxy and artificially alter the color and hardness, you get stabilized turquoise that can be cut and polished.

“An imitation looks more and more like the original, and with today’s science and technology you can make some incredible stuff that will blow your mind,” Lowry added.

Despite the law requiring written disclosure if an item is not authentic, some merchants resort to blatant deception anyway. Take for example a turquoise necklace peddled by Kokochile, a Santa Fe gift shop just off the plaza.

“Is this turquoise?”  KRQE News 13, working with a hidden camera, asked a Kokochile employee.

“Stabilized, yes. Turquoise, yes,” the employee replied.

KRQE News 13 then came back for a second visit.

“This is stabilized,” an employee said.

“Stabilized turquoise?” KRQE News 13 queried.

“Yeah. It’s called turquoise,” the employee said.

Just down the street at Santa Fe’s Long John Silver a pair of earrings caught KRQE News 13′s attention.

“Those are Zuni inlay. They’re 180 (dollars). You are going to be half off, 90 bucks,” the store clerk said as the hidden camera rolled.  “They are signed by the artist. They’re sterling, and the stones are natural.

“Turquoise of course, lapis, coral, mother of pearl, black onyx, malachite.”

Up the block at Wind River Trading Company another pair of earrings was represented as Indian handcrafted with natural stones.

“Opal, spiny oyster shell and turquoise,” the employee there said.

At the Museum of New Mexico gift shop in the Palace of the Governors a turquoise necklace was for sale for $27.

“This is actually turquoise that has been compressed, and I think the guy is from San Felipe,” the museum employee said.  “I don’t know what his process is. It’s a secret.”

Asked what, then, the material was, the employee replied, “It’s turquoise.”

And then there is the Smithsonian’s online gift shop. The national museum claimed a pair of earrings there was adorned with Arizona turquoise.

KRQE News 13 took its purchases to Professor Carl Agee at the University of New Mexico Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences for testing. The Museum of New Mexico necklace was easy.

“This is without doubt not turquoise,” Agee said.  “It’s some other mineral or some other substance. Anything but turquoise. It is not turquoise.”

And what about Wind River’s $55 turquoise and opal earrings?

“The turquoise-colored material in this sample is not genuine,” Agee said.  “It’s some other material, not turquoise.

“I’m taking a look at the opal now, and this scratches as if it were plastic. This is absolutely an imitation. No question about it.”

At Long John Silver they claimed the $81 earrings contained semiprecious stones.

“I think the whole thing is plastic,” Agee continued.  “It’s as if they are all the same material except they are different colors.”

A microscopic exam of the Kokochile necklace was inconclusive, so Agee cut one of the beads in half with a diamond saw.

“Oh, look at that.  That’s interesting,” he said.  “The matrix is only on the outside.”

Turquoise does no act like that in the natural world, he added.

UNM research scientist Michael Spilde performed the final test by putting the bead under a scanning electron microscope.

“I haven’t found any turquoise in there,” he said.  “It looks to be mostly silicate minerals cemented together with epoxy.”

The electron microscope also showed the Smithsonian’s claim of ‘Arizona turquoise’ to be bogus.

“It’s absolutely not turquoise,” Spilde said.

But was there any turquoise the piece?  “Absolutely none,” he added.

A spokeswoman for the Smithsonian told KRQE News 13 the institution made a mistake. The jewelry has been removed from the online catalog, and all purchasers will get an apology and a refund.

And how did the Palace of the Governors end up selling a fake? Jamie Clements apologized on behalf of the Museum of New Mexico Foundation, which operates the gift shop.

“This was an artist that represented the piece to us, which we then labeled as such when we sold it in our shop, and as you pointed out to me, that ended up being incorrect,” Clements said.  “Our immediate action was to re-evaluate our buying policies to make sure that this won’t happen in the future.”

Anyone who feels misled will be offered a full refund, he added.

But don’t look for refunds at Kokochile.  KRQE News 13 returned to the store and confronted an employee about the fake turquoise necklace sold there.

  • KRQE News 13:  It is a crime to misrepresent Indian Arts and crafts.
  • Employee:  OK
  • KRQE News 13:  That’s what you did.
  • Employee:  OK.
  • KRQE News 13:  What are you going to do about that? Who’s the owner of the store?
  • Employee:  He’s not here.
  • KRQE News 13:  Where is he?
  • Employee:  I don’t know.
  • KRQE News 13:  When will he be back?
  • Employee:  I don’t know.

The manager at Wind River trading referred KRQE News 13 to the store owner. On the phone Jean DeAngelis would not comment on the earrings unless she could do her own test. Wind River stands behind the merchandise it sells, she said.

At Long John Silver they didn’t just misrepresent jewelry.

“These here are Navajo rugs. They are newer made within the last 10 years,” the employee said.  “They’re made by the Nez family up in the Four Corners. They use natural vegetable dyes and real wool, of course, natural wool. They’re $400 apiece.”

Authentic Navajo weavings are painstakingly handmade by native weavers using hand-spun wool and natural dyes. The one at Long John Silver however is a fake. In fact, the exact same weaving, which is mass produced in India, is sold online for $66

“In India? Really?” said Kim Ulibarri, who owns Long John Silver with her mother.

Ulibarri admitted she’s not an expert.

“When the rugs were purchased, they were purchased from a Native American who represented himself as someone from the Nez family from the Navajo Reservation,” Ulibarri said.  “So I took his word in good faith that they were authentic Navajo rugs.”

Ulibarri said she inherited the business from her father.

“He passed away a year ago,” she said.  “I’ve been put in charge of the business, and I’m trying to learn day by day.

“From this point I’ll make sure that everything is authenticated and that I don’t just take the word of someone.”

According to state law, it is the responsibility of merchants who sell Indian arts and crafts to accurately represent their merchandise.

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Extras

The Real and the Fakes

Learn More about Turquoise and its history:

Turquoise Museum, 2107 Central Avenue NW, Albuquerque

Turquoise Museum Official Site

Turquoise book – Author Joe Dan Lowry:

Turquoise: The World Story of a Fascinating Gemstone

Lear how to spot imitations:

Turquoise:

Tips from Navajo silversmith – YouTube video

Opal:

Spotting synthetic opal – YouTube video

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