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State zeroes in on fake Native American goods


Citizen Business Writer

All it took was a hot straight pin to prove fraud in the case of a store selling bogus Native American goods.

The Arizona Attorney General’s Office recently found Turquoise Traders of Tucson was passing off fake jewelry as authentic Native American goods.

An undercover police officer and an attorney general’s investigator went into the store, purchased some jewelry and were told by a clerk the merchandise was authentic, said John Wall, assistant attorney general in the consumer protection and advocacy section.

The suspect jewelry was taken to a geologist at Arizona State University for testing.

“He stuck a hot pin in it, and it melted a hole right through the so-called stone. Turquoise is not supposed to melt,” Wall said.

As part of a settlement with the attorney general’s office, Turquoise Traders of Tucson, 6541 E. Tanque Verde Road, will be required to pay $5,000 in penalties, attorney’s fees and other costs. The store also will have to label merchandise as synthetic if it is not made of natural turquoise, and verify the origin of any Native American jewelry it sells. In addition, the shop must refrain from any deceptive advertising in the sale of Native American goods.

A call made to Turquoise Traders of Tucson seeking comment was not returned.

Wall said the sale of fake Native American goods is a “recurring problem. We have sued a number of companies in Arizona. In 1993-94, we made 11 judgments on bogus handcrafts.”

In those cases, the bogus crafts were found to be cheap, mass-produced imitations.

He said there are three cases pending in Arizona against retailers accused of fraudulently claiming bogus goods are the real Native American thing.

Wall added there is concern that Native American art and culture may be dying as artisans, finding their goods can’t compete with cheaper, mass-produced products, are abandoning their crafts.

“It’s a big concern because honest handcraft artists can’t compete with plastic,” he said.

Barbara Jean Teller Ornelas, a Tucson-based master Navajo weaver, knows firsthand how fraud affects reputable artisans who depend on their crafts for income.

People have brought rugs to Ornelas to fix. Her trained eye can see the rugs are fake, even though the owners think they’re Navajo-crafted.

“It’s sad that a lot of people are looking for the almighty dollar rather than looking to be reputable dealers of Native American art,” she said.

Not only are such dealers ripping off consumers, they’re also “taking away the livelihood of (Native American) families who put their history and art into their work,” Ornelas added.

Ornelas said she was caught in a web of deception when a rug she and her sister worked on for two years was copied and passed off as their design.

“Their take is imitation is the highest form of flattery, but that’s just not so.”

Dennis Welsh, president of the American Indian Chamber of Commerce in Tucson, agrees.

“It depreciates the value and authenticity of jewelry and other products and robs the artists of their ability to put food on the table and take care of their families,” he said.

Mark Bahti, owner of Bahti Indian Arts, said consumers can protect themselves, as well as help support the authentic Native American handicrafts industry, by asking for a certificate of authenticity for every piece of jewelry or item purchased.

“If they claim it’s Hopi, made of real turquoise or handmade, those things should be on the sales receipt or on a certificate of authenticity,” he said.

Wall said written information protects consumers by providing a means of recourse if merchandise turns out to be fake.

She offered these additional tips for consumers:

Ask to purchase jewelry on approval and take it to a reputable and trusted jeweler who can determine if it’s real before you buy it.

Look at the workmanship of the setting. If it looks cheap and fake, it probably is. Also, look for a “hallmark,” a stamp crafts people often put on the back of jewelry. The hallmark – which sometimes consists of the artisan’s initials or an animal shape – usually indicates that a piece if real. However don’t be lulled into a false sense of security, because even hallmarks can be counterfeit.

If there is a copyright symbol on a piece of jewelry, be suspect. “Most indians don’t put counterfeit symbols on their stuff,” Wall said.


- Check workmanship of the setting.

- Look for a “hallmark” or a stamp on the back of jewelry such as an artist’s initials or an animal shape.

- Be wary of copyright symbols on jewelry.

- If you suspect you’ve purchased a fake, call the state attorney general’s consumer information and complaint line at (800) 352-8431.

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