Federal charges have been brought against two artists in Washington state for falsely claiming to be Native American.

Two separate but very similar cases have been brought against the artists Lewis Anthony Rath and Jerry Chris Van Dyke. It’s a crime in the United States to sell art falsely attributed to any indigenous Americans. The law in question is the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (IACA) of 1990, a truth-in-advertising law which can carry fines up to $250,000 or a 5 year prison sentence, or both for an individual on a first-time violation. A business found in violation might be fined up to $1 million.

“By flooding the market with counterfeit Native American art and craftwork, these crimes cheat the consumer, undermine the economic livelihood of Native American artists, and impairs Indian culture,” said U.S. Attorney Nick Brown’s recent statement.

The IACA has been very lightly enforced since its inception. The first person to be convicted of federal charges for violating it was Neal Ali in 2018, for perpetuating the largest Native American art fraud in history. Despite his fraud being worth over $8 million, Ali got only six months in federal prison and a fine just under $10,000 to be paid in restitution.

In 2019, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, the entity made to enforce the IACA and a part of the Department of the Interior, received a series of complaints about both Rath and Van Dyke, who were selling art at two Seattle galleries. Agents made undercover purchases of sculptures, totem poles, and jewelry made by the artists. A biography available at one of the galleries, Seattle’s famous Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, falsely claimed that Rath was an enrolled member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe in Arizona. Van Dyke, under the name Jerry Witten, has claimed to be Nez Perce.

Because there is no burden on the galleries to verify tribal affiliation when it is provided by the artist, neither gallery has been charged. The owner of Raven’s Nest Treasure, the other gallery selling art by both artists, expressed frustration that there is no legal avenue to verify affiliation.

Photo: Shutterstock

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