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Online sales pose difficulties for prosecution
MAY 23, 2000

A Crow men's belt from the early 1900s. A 50- to 75-year-old Pueblo blanket. A Canadian Algonquin cradle board. An ancient Indian stone axe.

These are some of the items currently being peddled on eBay, a popular Internet auction site. But with an average bidding price of about $115, these items seem like small fish compared to the ones offered up by larger, established auction houses like Sotheby's.

True to its image as a haven for the upscale, only the high rollers need apply to the Sotheby's online auction. If you really want that men's beaded and quilled Plains shirt, you'll have to beat the current bid of $3,100. A beautiful Plains women's dress will require you to set down at least $1,800.

The sale of cultural artifacts is not a new concept, dating back to the days when explorers first began sustained contact with Native peoples. Despite the fact that many in Indian Country find the sale of items that were once owned and used by one's own ancestors distasteful, there is little to prevent others from poking around in our collective pasts.

However, the availability of cultural artifacts on the Internet has raised important ethical and legal questions. These issues don't only affect the Native community, either. Just this month, eBay was forced to cancel the sale of a highly priced painting whose authenticity came into doubt.

But there are still dangers for the potential buyer. Unless you're a highly trained collector or have enough money to spend at Sotheby's where authenticity is guaranteed, you have to rely on anonymous sellers with names like "merlin34" and "sittingbullscamp" to tell you the truth about the origin of their items.

And while the Indian Arts and Crafts Act is supposed to prevent the sale of items not made by Natives, the law might not be able to provide any protection. Someone who falsely sells an item as Indian made can be fined up to $250,000 and imprisoned up to five years for violating the Act.

But Mark Van Norman, Director of the Office of Tribal Justice in the Department of Justice, said it is hard to prosecute those who might have violated the Act. "It is difficult to gather evidence and then prove the seller knew...the product was not an 'Indian product,'" Van Norman told the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs last week.

The law also only applies to items made after 1935. So even if that early 1900s Crow belt turns out not to be Crow-made at all, the best a jilted collector can do is ask for his or her money back.

Let the buyer beware.

Related Story:
Fighting forgeries in Indian Country (5/18)

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