By Morgan Lee
THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
SANTA FE, N.M.-A jewelry supplier has pleaded guilty in federal court to a misdemeanour criminal charge in the sale of fake Native American jewelry that was manufactured in the Philippines, representing the first conviction in a sweeping international investigation.
Art supplier Mohammad Manasra pleaded guilty to misrepresenting fake Indian-produced goods in violation of the Indian Arts and Craft Act, The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Albuquerque confirmed Wednesday.
In October 2015, federal agents raided Indian art galleries in Albuquerque, Gallup, and Calistoga, California, to seize counterfeits and evidence.
Manasra has agreed to forfeit 5,268 pieces of jewelry and pay $500, while acknowledging that he passed off jewelry made in the Philippines as the work of Navajo and Zuni Pueblo artists, court documents indicate.
A sentencing hearing is still months away. An attorney for Manasra declined Wednesday to discuss the case.
Co-defendant Nael Ali was scheduled for a separate hearing Wednesday to consider changing his not guilty plea. Authorities have accused Ali, the owner of two Indian art galleries in the Old Town neighbourhood of Albuquerque and another in Arizona, of attributing jewelry to specific Navajo craftsman when it was actually made in the Philippines.
Four other people have been charged under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act in a separate indictment that traces Filipino-made jewelry to Indian-art galleries in Santa Fe and San Diego, with a trial scheduled next year.
The investigations spearheaded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have laid bare the breadth and sophistication of distribution networks for fake Indian-style art and crafts.
U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico has warned that Native American art markets are being destabilized by fakes, undermining a crucial source of income for tribal members.
He hopes to propel efforts to modernize the Indian Arts and Crafts Act to cope with sophisticated international jewelry rings that copy Native American designs and police online sales. The act makes it a crime to falsely market and sell art as Native American-made when it is not.