The art of tricking tourists

Alaska-made art sells big with tourists, tempting some shopkeepers to cover up the fact the art was made in China or Bali.

Posted: Sunday, September 17, 2000

Half of Juneau's downtown tourist shops use cheap, foreign knock-offs to mislead customers seeking Alaska-made Native art.

"Made in Indonesia" stickers are removed, covered and sometimes replaced with "Made in Alaska" stickers. Non-Native artists are presented as Native and imported products are passed off as locally made, Empire reporters discovered during repeated visits to 26 shops this summer.

"The misrepresentation is rampant," said Kathy Ellis, co-owner of The Raven's Journey Gallery in downtown Juneau. "The stores in this town are packed with made-in-Bali art. It's hurting local artists, I think, big time. It makes anyone who deals with this look bad."

Art fraud honest shopsThe focus of the investigation was misrepresentation of art. Clerks in the following shops that sell hand-crafted art were quick to point out exactly what merchandise was imported and which was Alaska-made. They knew about their products and the artists and were completely candid: Alaska Peddler, Goldmine Gifts, Alaska Gift Cache, The Raven's Journey, Beasley's Art Gallery, Fireweed Gifts, Totemic Treasures, Moose on the Loose, Eskimos and Butterflies, George's Jewelry and Gifts, Mt. Juneau Trading Post, Latitude 58, Portfolio Arts and Rainsong. Not all downtown shops were visited.

Juneau artist and art collector Michael Hunter worries that misrepresenting art could destroy the community's credibility among travelers, who spend more than $60 million a year in Juneau on souvenirs and tours.

Ketchikan and Vancouver, B.C., are working hard to establish themselves as more reputable places for visitors to buy art, said Hunter, who also manages The Big Picture gallery. He said Juneau could become known as the place to take a tram ride or watch whales, but not as a good place to buy art.

The deceptions also hurt Alaska artists, many of whom live in cash-strapped villages where money earned by creating traditional art puts food on the table and helps pays the bills.

"That has had some real impacts on individual artists who make a living selling their own artwork," said Rose Atuk Fosdick, a member of the new Bering Strait Inuit Cooperative. Fosdick said deceptive practices in Southeast Alaska and Anchorage helped motivate her and other artists in the Bering Strait region to organize and address these problems.

"There are very few jobs available in small communities and people have relied on their abilities to make arts and crafts," said Fosdick of Nome. "Money that people spend on those non-authentic works is going to someone else, who is maybe mass producing. They're benefiting from the fact that people want to buy Alaska Native artwork, but that money does not go to the people it should."

 

Visitor Jeanette Paktor-Mahler is among the many tourists who say they want Alaska-made products.

"I want something that's going to say 'traditional Native Alaska,' " she said while shopping on South Franklin Street this month. "I'd like the material to be representative, and the carving reflective of the culture a connection to the heritage, culture and spirit of the Native Alaskan people."

For that reason, the temptation to pass off imitations as the real thing can be irresistible.

Tricks of the trade

Earlier this month shop owner Norma Carandang pitched her wares at the Billiken Gift Shop. She pointed out soapstone carvings signed by Chupak, who she said is an Alaska Native artist. She showed off a carved antler made by Bob Merry, who she said was a local artist. She pointed out bowls she said were made by an Anchorage Native carver named Larry.

In reality, Chupak is Chivly Chup, a Cambodian immigrant and not an Alaska Native. Bob Merry lives in Anchorage and is not a local. Larry is Larry Lynd, an Anchorage wholesale art dealer who is not Native and who does not carve bowls.

Lynd wasn't surprised that a Juneau retailer had misrepresented his work. He said it's happened before. The Anchorage wholesaler operates a factory in Indonesia that produces Alaska-style art. He sells Alaska-made and Native-made crafts as well, and said all his merchandise made overseas is marked.

"It's stamped when we sell it, and I know sometimes they do take the stickers off," Lynd said.

 

When Carandang was contacted later about her misrepresentations, she denied ever claiming Larry Lynd was a carver. She said she always tells people he's their vendor. Regarding Bob Merry's status as a local, she said, "If they are from Anchorage, they are local. They're Alaskan. It depends on how you define local."

She said she knows the artist Chup was born in Cambodia. She said she tells people he is an Alaska Native because he lives in Juneau. She admitted that could imply to visitors he is Tlingit.

At Frontier Gifts, a reporter saw two masks made by Lynd's Indonesian factory bearing "Made In Alaska" stickers. Hours later, the tags had been removed. Shop owner Naya Lazaro admitted the masks were made overseas, but denied they were ever tagged "Made In Alaska." When pressed, she admitted to painting over the "Made in Indonesia" tags on some of the totems she sells.

In virtually every Juneau shop selling imported art and souvenirs, reporters saw hundreds of items made overseas, but displayed with the tags removed or covered. At Timberwolf, Erlinda's Gift Shop, Treasures of Alaska and the Alaska Gift Cache, the price stickers are placed directly over the "Made in China" tag, or the label has been removed. At Northern Treasures, each "Native" doll on a rack sports a tag telling the doll's story, and each tag has a portion carefully torn off.

"Each article must reflect the country of origin. It must be clearly marked on there in English," said Ken Koelsch, port director of customs in Juneau. "If it doesn't, it's a violation and susceptible to a fine."

When asked outright, most shopkeepers readily admit the products are made in Asia. Some do not. Shopkeepers in Hickok's Trading Company told a reporter they didn't know where any of their masks and totems were made. A clerk at Billiken Gift Shop said the totems came from Anchorage. A clerk at Frontier Gifts said carvings in her shop came from "up north." The owners of all three shops later acknowledged all the items were imported.

"The power is in what's not said. That's the whole conundrum in this industry," said Mick Beasley, an Alaska Native artist and co-owner of Beasley's Art Gallery. "It's hard when you look at a collection of stuff five pieces with the Silver Hand (denoting Alaska Native made) and five without, all mixed together. The casual observer won't tell the difference between what's Native and not Native. It's about what's not said."

Walking the line

When asked about Alaska Native-made carvings at Midnight Sun Gifts, a clerk gestured to a mixed collection of Alaska-made and imported pieces. When asked about specifics, she quickly identified the imports.

Retailers and wholesalers are clever in their ability to imply artists are Native without lying, or that products are Alaska-made when they are not, said former investigator Steven Rouse, who administered the state's Made in Alaska program from 1994 until last January.

Shopkeepers blur the distinction between imports and Native-made pieces by putting the Alaska name on them and positioning products together to benefit from the association, according to Rouse.

"If it's not over the line, it's on the line," he said.

Rouse visited Juneau at least twice a year to make sure retailers were not abusing the Made in Alaska mother bear and cub symbol. When confronted, many shopkeepers claimed ignorance or misunderstanding, he said.

"Maybe it was deliberate ignorance or plausible deniability," he said. "I'd say about 10 percent of the shops out there don't care much about any confusion."

Shopkeepers often hedge about the identity of one of Juneau's most prolific Native-style artists, Chivly Chup, who signs his work as Chupak.

Carol Carlson, owner of Goldmine Gifts, said shopkeepers have no excuse for not knowing Chup is from Cambodia. She said Chup's representative Kurt Tripp always has been up front with her about Chup and includes a biography with each art piece that clearly states Chup's history.

"If they want to make a sale, they will say he's Native. We've lost a lot of sales because we tell them he's from Cambodia, even if they love the piece." Carlson said. "People will lie to make the sale."

At Northern Treasures, Chup's biography has been modified to imply he's Eskimo. When asked, shopkeeper Dave Mende at Northern Treasures said Chup is local, but said he didn't know anything about him.

 

shopkeeper at Dockside Jewelers said Chupak is an Alaska Native living in Juneau, then said, "Oh, Chupak might be a clan." Another clerk said she thought he was Native, but might just be a local resident.

"It's packaging and marketing. Is it ethical? No. Is it filling a needed market niche because there is a lack of authentic carved products? Yes," said Rouse, the former investigator.

"They do want a Native craft and there's only about 10 percent available in the trade. The other 90 percent is either Alaska-made or imported," said Lynd, the Anchorage wholesaler.

"We have both authentic and not, and they can usually tell by the price," said Jared Williams, manager of Alaska Gift Cache. He said with masks and totems, the difference is $150 compared to $1,000. He's also had customers ask for an Alaska-made totem pole for $30.

"It's not going to happen. So we try to have something for everyone," he said.

Stealing the Silver Hand

Only artwork made by Alaska Native artists can bear the Silver Hand seal. The intent is to guarantee consumers the authenticity of Native-made artwork.

"I get complaints all the time," said Saunders McNeill, who investigates reports of violations. Enforcement is the responsibility of the Alaska State Council on the Arts, and McNeill is the Native arts program director. Cases include consumers' complaints of misrepresented art they bought, artists' reports of counterfeiting and misuse of the Silver Hand seal.

McNeill is investigating a case in Juneau that involves someone accused of fraudulently producing Native-style art and putting the Silver Hand tag on it.

"He's getting Silver Hand (tags) that he shouldn't be having," she said. She wouldn't identify the individual, but added there's been a second complaint in Juneau involving the same person.

McNeill just closed a case in Skagway and is looking at two more in Ketchikan and one in Sitka. But investigating such cases is just a small part of her job, and she believes a full-time Silver Hand watchdog is needed.

The Alaska State Council on the Arts is revamping the whole Silver Hand program and has quit supplying merchants with the Silver Hand tags, she said.

"Because there have been so many cases of fraudulent use, we've suspended the agent program," she said. "We no longer give tags to representatives or agents, only directly to the artists."

The state arts council would like to see stiffer penalties for violations, she said. Her office is studying models of different laws to present to the state Legislature. She said she'd like to see non-Native artwork labeled as such, something first proposed 40 years ago.

"They tried to do that in the original 1961 statutes, but there was a huge outcry. That was seen as negative marketing and the statutes were basically watered down," she said. "We're looking at rewriting the statutes."

Alaska Native artist Mick Beasley strongly agrees that would help.

"It shouldn't be Natives having to identify their stuff. The responsibility should lie on the non-Native producer. Anything that is non-Native-produced ought to make the declaration," he said. "And if they don't there should be hefty fines."

Fosdick of the Bering Strait Inuit Cooperative said the Silver Hand program is on the right track, but needs more support.

"It can be a solution. It's the responsibility of the artists and shopkeepers to use the Silver Hand program," she said. "Educating the public would also be good and could be a part of the Silver Hand program getting the word out that quality Alaska Native artwork is available."

Shop owners are frustrated by deceptive practices and would like to see the industry cleaned up. Jerry Reinwand, co-owner of Alaska Peddler, which specializes in Alaska-made products, said a few years ago he dropped a product line allegedly made in Juneau when he found evidence that convinced him otherwise.

"I wasn't going to put anything out there that's questionable," Reinwand said.

Cleaning up their act

Rouse said the misrepresentation of art today is not as bad as it was six years ago, when he first took over the Made in Alaska program.

"As a region, Southeast Alaska was by far the most problematic," he said.

He said originally Ketchikan was the most egregious offender, with retailers routinely tagging imports as Made in Alaska. A cooperative effort by his program and Made in Alaska product dealers turned the situation around. He said although it's not perfect, Creek Street in Ketchikan is now one of the state's premier show places for authentic Alaska art.

Artist Michael Hunter said he hopes the community of merchants in Juneau will police themselves to protect the town's reputation. He thinks Juneau would benefit from the Juneau Chamber of Commerce and the Juneau Convention and Visitors Bureau policing shops. A newsletter could watchdog violators.

He said deceptive practices, even by a few shops, could hurt the reputation of the entire Juneau business community.

"People may not pay attention here, but they sure do back in New England," Hunter said. "And they're planning their vacations."

Juneau Empire reporters Mike Stewart and Kristan Hutchison contributed to the reporting in this article.



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