Artifact dealers, collectors reflect on artifact raids last year

By Susan Montoya Bryan
Santa Fe, New Mexico (AP) August 2010

The nation’s largest and longest-running Indian artifact show opened last year under a cloud of fear and uncertainty as a federal investigation into the sale of Native American artifacts intensified throughout the Four Corners region.

Since then, suicide has claimed the government’s informant and two defendants, the prehistoric Indian art market has bottomed out, some collectors’ lives have been turned upside down and several federal indictments have resulted only in probation for some of those accused of plundering artifacts from federal lands.

Now, artifact dealers and collectors who attended the 32nd annual Whitehawk Antique Show in Santa Fe are sharing their concerns over how the government handled the case and the way authorities are interpreting federal laws designed to protect the nation’s archaeological sites and cultural heritage.

“We have suffered a stigma for so many years. I think it’s time for people to stand up for their rights to collect and enjoy things that are old,” Dace Hyatt, a restoration expert from Show Low, Ariz., told The Associated Press.

Hyatt and other members of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association organized a special panel discussion before the start of the show to talk about the federal raids, informant Ted Gardiner and the laws that govern everything from arrowheads to centuries-old pots.

Once a mentor and friend to Gardiner, Hyatt said federal authorities should not have relied on him to make their case. He explained that Gardiner had financial problems and had reached a low point in his life before agreeing to work as an informant.

“In my opinion, he stooped to levels of misrepresenting the truth, embellishing and lying and that’s unfortunate because you would think there would be more checks and balances within the departments to credit or discredit his statements before they orchestrated an entire two-and-a-half-year sting operation that cost the taxpayers – I would be willing to speculate millions of dollars – to only come up with 26 indictments. That’s the travesty,” Hyatt said.

Gardiner was credited with making the case for federal authorities by secretly recording more than $335,000 in purchases over two years from people later accused of digging, collecting, selling or trafficking in artifacts taken from federal and tribal lands.

However, Hyatt alleged Gardiner also tried to bait honest collectors, including himself, by not being forthcoming with information about the items he was offering to sell.

In his case, Hyatt said Gardiner offered to sell him artifacts that came from an area known as the Arizona Strip. Hyatt declined the offer because he knew the area included parcels of federal land.

Retired attorney and avid collector Jim Owens cited another case in which Gardiner was accused of signing a disclosure statement that some items he was trying to sell to one collector were legal. Later, Owens said, Gardiner showed the collector on a map where the items had come from. The collector recognized it as federal land and turned down the deal.

Owens, Hyatt and others with the art dealers association said the forum was an effort to start a conversation about how to better police the market for real criminals and avoid entrapping innocent collectors who simply have a passion for artifacts.

Last summer, federal authorities rounded up more than two dozen defendants in Utah, New Mexico and Colorado following a sting operation that was fueled by Gardiner’s undercover work. So far, eight defendants have reached plea agreements that resulted in leniency and no prison time.

In the latest case, a Utah man who once bragged about taking Indian artifacts from federal lands received three years of probation. Charges are pending against 16 more defendants and an investigation remains open in Arizona and New Mexico.

Dealers and collectors acknowledge that the operation helped eliminate what they called a “fringe criminal element” in the artifact market, but they vehemently denied claims by authorities that an underground black market exists.

“That is a total myth and it needs to be debunked right now,” Owens said.

Owens and others also said that some of the raids went too far and the rights of honest collectors were trampled.

Melodie Rydalch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. attorney’s office in Utah, said that prosecutors are confident in the way the cases have been charged and noted that a federal judge found sufficient reason to sign off on the plea agreements that have been reached so far.

Across the hall from the forum, about 100 dealers had set up booths for the annual show. Colorful Navajo rugs hung from the walls, painted pottery lined shelves and case after case had on display everything from rare figurines to delicate bead work, woven baskets and turquoise jewelry. The aisles were tight with prospective buyers and those who were there just to soak in the art.

Hyatt, who has been interested in artifacts since he was a boy, said the mood has improved this year.

Bob Gallegos, a past president of the dealers association, said some dealers and collectors don’t know the law as well as they should and could easily fall into a trap like those described by Hyatt and Owens.

Part of the problem, Gallegos said, is that federal law allows for the collection of artifacts on private land and that has created a loophole for criminals to claim their items are legitimate. Proving otherwise and enforcing the law has become very difficult for authorities, he said.

The government, Gallegos said, has to resort to tactics that have created fear and paranoia.

“We have to become partners with the government in helping them impart these laws,” he said. “We all have the same goals, we all want to preserve our cultural sites, our cultural resources, but we can no longer have these win-lose situations.”