Four shops catering to Alaska cruise ship visitors sold whale and walrus bone carvings for $1,000 or more each that they falsely claimed were made by Alaskan indigenous artists, according to U.S. federal prosecutors.

The shop owners in Juneau, Ketchikan and Skagway have been charged with violating the federal Indian Arts and Crafts Act, prosecutors announced late Thursday. A Skagway employee also was charged.

Native Craft Fraud

An undercover U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agent bought this carving in the prosecution of southeast Alaska shop owners in Juneau, Alaska. Four shops catering to Alaska cruise ship visitors sold whale and walrus bone carvings for $1,000 or more each that they falsely claimed were made by Alaska indigenous artists, according to U.S. federal prosecutors. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/The Associated Press)

Congress adopted the measure as a truth-in-marketing law, said Jack Schmidt, assistant U.S. attorney in Juneau. The number of cases demonstrates the problem is common.

"To make the sale, people are willing to misrepresent," he said. "We're hoping that with this prosecution of cases, that we will be able to put it out there that this is not an acceptable practice."

Art falsely portrayed as created by indigenous people is a statewide issue that undercuts sales for Alaska indigenous artists. Many live in rural villages with depressed economies, said Rosita Worl, president of the Sealaska Heritage Institute and an advocate for issues affecting Alaska Natives.

"Arts and craft sales are a major effort for them to stay in the villages," she said Friday.

Fraudulent sales also hurt consumers, she said.

"We don't do a service to customers if we're selling them fake art, and probably not good art," Worl said.

Alaska has multiple indigenous peoples, including Tlingit and Haida in southeast Alaska, Athabaskans in interior Alaska, and Aleuts, Yupik and Inuit of the western and northern coasts.

The investigation focused on figurines carved from whale or walrus bones.

Tourists' complaints led to an investigation by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In one Juneau case, an undercover agent in August entered the Diamond Island shop, contacted owner Vinod "Vinny" Sippy and asked about two bone carvings.

Sippy, the agent reported, said they were carved by an "Inuit Indian" and "Native Inuits."

The agent bought both pieces for a total of $1,985. Sippy later acknowledged he knew the artists were not Alaska Natives, according to the misdemeanour complaint.

Sippy's attorney, Brent Cole, said his client is taking the charges seriously. He said the government has provided a substantial amount of information on the case after a year or more of investigation, and it was impossible to comment before sifting through the information.

Norma Carandang, who owns Northstar Gift Shop in Juneau, was charged with two counts. An undercover agent reporting buying a non-Native carving for $976 that Carandang claimed was made by a member of the Tlingit-Haida tribe.

Carandang said Friday she was shocked by the charge but was advised not to comment.

Gabriel Karim, owner of Alaska Heritage in Ketchikan, was charged with one count. He said by phone from Puerto Rico he had not heard of the charge. The origin of artwork sold in his Ketchikan store, he said, is identified to customers. Employees are trained to distinguish between pieces carved in Alaska versus pieces carved by Alaska Natives.

"There might be some sort of misunderstanding," Karim said.

In Skagway, Lynch and Kennedy Dry Goods Inc. owner Rosemary Libert and seasonal employee Judy Gengler were charged with one count each. Messages left with Libert were not immediately returned Friday.

The maximum penalty for a conviction is a year in prison and a $100,000 fine.