Case of U.S. man caught with walrus tusk statue in his trunk reveals the debate over Inuit art exports
Montreal art gallery now charged with illegally selling sperm whale teeth
On July 25, 2021, Pedro Huertas, an American doctor trying to cross from Canada into the U.S. at the Highgate Springs border crossing in Vermont, told a border guard he was bringing one $2,000 stone statue with him.
He was lying.
A search of his vehicle revealed nine bubble-wrapped packages of various sizes, one of them long and thin, others small, according to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. court. When border guards asked Huertas what was inside, he and his wife would not respond to their questions.
Three of the statues, U.S. authorities would later learn, were carved from sperm whale teeth and another was made of a walrus tusk. The border guards seized them.
CITES, which restricts the sale of products made from protected species, and other, country-specific laws, make it difficult — and sometimes impossible — to leave Canada with products made from whales, walruses and seals, even if they are carvings made from animals hunted legally by Inuit or from bones that have sat in the tundra or on the shore for years.
Huertas wanted the statues back, and a few days later, he presented the authorities with documents, including official certificates of authenticity, that purported to show that the items were decades old, a fact which, if true, might have allowed him to keep them and avoid charges.
It was not true. According to an account in the U.S. District Court documents, they were drawn up at Huertas's request by the art gallery where he had purchased the carvings — Images Boréales, a prominent Inuit art gallery in Old Montreal.
Huertas was charged in the U.S. with knowingly importing parts of an endangered species without the proper permits. The owner and an employee of Images Boréales are also facing charges here in Canada for allegedly falsifying documents and possessing sperm whale teeth.
The laws that Huertas and Images Boréales are accused of breaking exist to prevent the sale and export of endangered species products. They are celebrated by some conservationists even as Inuit artists decry them as too restrictive. Some Inuit-art enthusiasts abroad are willing to go to extreme lengths to acquire pieces made from whale bone and walrus ivory.
At Images Boréales, on St-Paul Street in the heart of Old Montreal, a busy tourist area, carvings of soapstone sit on glass shelves near sculptures made of whale bone and walrus ivory.
But the sale of such items, particularly to Americans and tourists from outside of Canada, is complicated.
A necessary inconvenience
Some animal conservationists say that while many Inuit art enthusiasts may find the rules around import onerous or heavy-handed, they are necessary to make sure animals aren't killed for their tusks and bones.
Barry Kent Mackay, the director of the Animal Alliance of Canada, said treaties like CITES — the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora — are necessary.
The laws are there to protect animals even if they inconvenience people, "including a carver in the far North, or an art gallery in Montreal or an American who wants an ornament on his coffee table" because they help ensure that animals aren't being killed gratuitously for the price tag on their body parts.
"The higher the demand, the greater the incentive to remove these animals," Kent said. "The only way to ensure that the artisans will have something that they can carve is to protect the walrus, prevent it from becoming extinct."
Working with deliberate precision in his studio in Belleville, Ont., Ruben Anton Komangapik, an Inuk hunter and artist, uses hand tools to carve a trench into a piece of whale bone.
The massive mammal died decades ago. Fresh whale bone is saturated with oil and can't be carved. Artists often work with bones that have lain on a beach for years, exposed to the elements — sometimes for more than a century — victims of whalers who hunted the animals for their oil.
But Komangapik says he will struggle to sell the finished sculpture that emerges from the whale bone because of the export restrictions.
"It's really difficult because being an artist, you're living pretty much on a piece-to-piece situation," he said.
Theresie Tungilik, an Inuk artist and the president and spokesperson for CARFAC, a union that represents the interests of Canadian artists, has advocated against the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), a U.S. law that restricts the import of products made from whales, seals and walruses, among other animals.
She recently circulated a petition, signed by other artists, calling for changes to the MMPA to allow Inuit artists to sell their work to the American market. The restrictions hurt Inuit artists' ability to sell their work and make money, she said.
"We hunt the animal not just for their bones and ivory, we hunt them because we need the food to eat," she said, "and it's a big plus when a walrus has a tusk and it can be made into art."
Komangapik said Inuit carvers sometimes face pressure from artist co-ops to use other materials and avoid using bone or ivory because those items are more difficult to sell.
But that never stopped him. Working with whale bone reminds him of his grandfather, who was also a carver, he said.
"Every time I carve it," he says, "the smell of it and the touch of it and everything associated, it feels like I'm visiting him."
'They can't buy it'
Sculptures made of whale bone and walrus ivory have piled up in warehouses in southern Canada, purchased by co-ops that market art carved by artists in the North to worldwide markets.
Since the pieces made from marine mammals usually can't be exported — they end up on shelves and in storage.
RJ Ramrattan, the general manager at Canadian Arctic Producers (CAP), a co-op that pays Inuit artists for their work, promotes it and sells it worldwide, describes the sale of art made from whale bone and ivory as a "nightmare."
Some export permits require details about how the animal was killed that are difficult — or impossible — to get for some of the pieces that Inuit artists carve.
For example, in the case of a decades-old sculpture carved from a piece of whale bone that has sat outside since the early 20th century, it would be difficult to prove where and how an animal was killed, and how the artist acquired it — especially if the artist is dead.
"I have many, many clients from the U.S. coming to the galleries," Ramrattan said. "They love the bone, they love the whale bone, they love the walrus ivory … but they can't buy it."
Despite the headaches that often come with trying to sell and export a piece of Inuit art made from bone or ivory, some art dealers see the necessity of the restrictions.
"I understand the idea. The idea is to protect," said John Houston, owner and director of Houston North Gallery, which sells Inuit art, and an Arctic filmmaker. "If someone says, "Oh wow, I'm going to carve a whole lot of walrus ivory, which means I'm going to go and kill a whole ton of walrus,' — well, we don't want that."
When a gallery circumvents the export restrictions, it could lead to additional scrutiny of the whole sector, he said, and ultimately hurt the industry.
"What good is going to come with that? Either things stay as they are and someone just gets a fine or quite possibly, [the authorities] end up saying 'we're gonna have to tighten this all up.'"
Houston said he would love to have access to the American market, where Inuit-art enthusiasts are willing to pay top dollar for sculptures made of whale bone and walrus ivory. But the roadblocks posed by export restrictions are too restrictive.
Huertas, meanwhile, pleaded guilty in October to a misdemeanor charge of knowingly importing parts of an endangered species into the U.S. and, after a plea deal that kept him out of prison, agreed to pay a $50,000 fine. The court also ordered the forfeiture of the four ivory carvings.
Now, Matthew Namour, the owner of Images Boréales, and one of his employees, Imene Mansour, are scheduled to appear in a Montreal courtroom on Dec. 4 to answer to charges that they breached the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act. They have not yet entered a plea.
Mansour, Namour and the gallery have been charged with possessing sperm whale teeth, which are part of an endangered species, with the intent to sell or distribute them and Mansour and the gallery are accused of presenting false documents to authorities. If guilty, they face a minimum fine of $5,000 or a maximum of six months in jail, or both.
Through a lawyer, they declined to answer questions, saying that it was still early in the proceedings. The criminal complaint against Huertas in the U.S. alleges that Mansour falsified documents on Huertas's behalf. These allegations remain to be proven in the criminal proceedings in Canada.