There is a lot of forged/faked Indian jewelry on ebay, particularly Zuni and Navajo styles. Here is a guide to help you figure out who is selling the real stuff.
Why should you even care?Why, you might ask, does it even matter if you buy fake or reproduction Indian jewelry? First and foremost, doing so hurts the Native American artists who produce the real thing. By buying inexpensive jewelry made overseas using cheap labor and materials, you drive the prices of the real Indian jewelry down. Think about it, why would someone pay $200 for a Clayton Tom (Navajo) micro-inlaid pendant when you can get something similar for $50? Not only do you hurt the real artists financially, the fake jewelry is essentially stealing their culture. Also from your perspective, you may be paying a “real Indian jewelry” price for fake Indian jewelry if something is being sold as real when it’s not. Why should you pay a lot for something that was made with cheap overseas labor, and possibly with plastic materials, when you could buy the real thing and know you are wearing something made with care by a Navajo or Zuni artist? And as an added bonus, you are supporting their cultural heritage.
What you can do to protect yourself?Here are a bunch of tips, many of them suggested by the ebay seller truthabout925 who let me use his observations and ideas in this guide:
1. One key to knowing a fake is repetition. The same thing sold week in and week out by the same seller. The items do not have to be exact but similar. Anyone who knows true Native American jewelry will tell you that it is very hard to find the exact same item with the same hallmarks from town to town let alone store to store. Although please note that some people carry particular artist’s works and those pieces might be very similar (like two comparable cuffs by Sunshine Reeves). But they always list the artist’s name, and the piece is usually signed if it is contemporary (though not always). It is very unlikely to find the exact same “old pawn” piece twice.
2. An honest seller with nothing to hide will proudly list in the description which hallmarks are on a jewelry item. If you can see a hallmark in the pictures but there is no mention of it in the description, be suspicious. The reason for not mentioning marks is to not bring to your attention the fact that it is the same exact mark on many prior pieces. If you see a BY or G or something else on lots of pieces, this probably means mass production and reproduction. The only time you will see the same hallmarks is if a seller is representing a specific artist and in that case it is usually authentic.
3. If a seller says they think it is Navajo or Zuni, but won’t commit, you should wonder a little bit about why they are not being definite. On older pieces with no marks some styles can cross over so it is understandable if a seller could not guarantee a tribe. That happens to me sometimes when I buy pawned petit point styles, which both Zuni and Navajo create. When the items are obviously new though, then the seller should know the origin. The reason for not identifying the tribe is that they will not incriminate themselves by stating that something is Native American when they know it isn’t (that is a federal crime). Also sadly, is easy to fake oxidation on silver, meaning a dark color to the silver. Heavily tarnished silver does not guarantee a piece is very old.
4. Another red flag is inconsistencies. For example you see a Zuni micro-inlay butterfly pin being sold as purchased from an estate in Bisbee, AZ, then two weeks later the same exact pin is listed and now it comes from a store in Scottsdale, AZ, be wary. A seller should be able to tell you where they acquired the item from and it is very unlikely you will find two old pieces that are identical. Don’t be afraid to ask were it came from and how old it is. Keep a close eye on the response and then watch for a similar item and ask again.
5. Here are some tips on inlay in general. First it is very rare to see what is termed micro-inlay being made in Zuni. The micro inlay I am familiar with is spectacular work done by Navajo inlayers like Clayton Tom and Ervin Tsosie. Jesse Lee Monongye is of Navajo/Hopi descent and does amazing micro-inlay. You will not find any of these artist’s works for sale cheaply, so if you think you do, be careful. As for chip inlay, there is and was a lot of chip inlay being done in Mexico. In general I would say that the Navajo chip inlay is placed piece by piece in the cavity and arranged carefully, fitting pieces together like a mosaic, whereas the Mexican inlay looks like someone dumped a bunch of tiny chips into an area and then poured glue in there. This of course is a generalization, but look for carefully placed inlay and it is probably Navajo. Finally I have been seeing some Zuni inlay that has been copied from famous pieces, for instance Lambert Homer pieces from the C.G. Wallace Collection. From what I know, none of those artists from the 40s and 50s stamped their initials into their pieces. If you see something stamped LH is not likely to be Lambert Homer and TW is not likely to be Teddy Weahkee. Watch out for these reproductions. Often the seller is vague on origin, hallmarks and even age. If something seems too good to be true (like what should be a $10,000 piece selling for $150) it probably is! It seems to me there are also honest sellers out there who think they are selling real Native pieces, but are being deceived by their suppliers.
6. Turquoise is another place where you can get burned. Only about 10% of turquoise on the market today is natural and untreated. Now treated does NOT mean bad. Turquoise is a very soft material and most would crack or chip if it was not stabilized. There is a lot of information about stabilization and treating turquoise on the web so I won’t go into it here. I have, for instance, a gorgeous piece of Old Number 8 turquoise that I bought knowing it was stabilized and this doesn’t bother me one bit! But some sellers seem to have just an endless supply of natural, untreated turquoise and that makes me wonder. Another thing to watch for is BLOCK, which is basically plastic made to look like turquoise, sometimes with fake matrix. One way to tell block is most of it doesn’t have any matrix. This is not foolproof since some real turquoise, for example Sleeping Beauty, can be perfectly matrix-free and almost too blue. Also the matrix in block has a fake look. It is hard to describe how to identify block, but real matrix is usually somewhat rocky or metallic so if you see very smooth looking matrix that is utterly evenly colored, it might be block. Some Native artists have even been forced to use block just to be able to compete in selling their own jewelry against the foreign imports. Finally if you see a photo of an item many weeks in a row, and it is always the same photo, and each time it is some different amazing rare American turquoise, you might want to be careful.
7. A word about disclaimers. There are people who specifically state that the items they are selling are not made here, and you can therefore assume they are not Native American. They are not violating the federal law regarding selling foreign imports as Native-made, since they are not saying anything is Native-made. Whether they are within the law or not, they are using Zuni and Navajo styles, cultural images, and deities in their designs. And as mentioned above, these imports are driving prices down and causing real Native Americans hardship because of this. I can’t tell you what to do, but I would ask you to just think about what you are buying before you buy it. I don’t think anyone would have a problem if someone overseas wants to micro-inlay something from their own culture, the technique is not special. But when a non-Native inlays Zuni sun faces, Native pueblos, or Navajo yei figures, that is really intruding on someone else’s cultural heritage.
8. A word about something near and dear to my heart, Zuni fetish necklaces. The vast majority of fetish necklaces that I see on ebay are not Zuni, and many are not even Native American. There are so many cheap imports that it is even hard to find a real Zuni piece. There are many nicely carved Navajo necklaces, and usually sellers specify it is Navajo, and there is nothing wrong with that. Sometimes people mix up Navajo and Zuni carvings, an honest mistake. But watch out for necklaces where in listing after listing the pieces are identical and the animals have bizarre colors (like bright pink and fluorescent green). Also very flat, very crudely carved animals are probably not Zuni or Navajo.
9. Just use your common sense! The amount of truly old jewelry on the market (pre-1950s) is not that huge. If you see someone selling 10 or 12 pieces of old jewelry every week think about where they could possibly be getting it, especially if they live far from the Southwest, which is the source of the jewelry. Say they sell 10 items per week, that's 40 pieces per month and then that means they acquire 480 pieces of old jewelry every year. Even many of the big name trading posts in Gallup don't have that amount of old jewelry, and they are at the source. Also be aware that it is easy to fake a dark patina on newly made pieces, so don't be fooled by something that looks old. If a price on an item is too good to be true, it probably IS too good to be true.
10. I am sure someone is going to get mad about this guide, but it is a very important issue, and the problem is not limited to ebay. Apparently reproductions are even becoming a problem in Gallup, the heart of Indian Country. My point is to give general advice about buying real Native American jewelry anywhere, not just on ebay.
11. If you think someone is selling an ebay item under false advertising (calling it Native American when you know it isn't), make a complaint to ebay about the item. They should look into it.
Some helpful resources:NEW!! See the ATADA website section on fake Indian jewelry for important information about RECENT FAKES ON EBAY:
The Allure of Turquoise (2nd Edition) Articles from New Mexico Magazine, Edited by Arnold Vigil. This has a lot of useful information about geology and uses of turquoise and good information about fake stones and jewelry. Also check out chapter 6 for some examples of faked Zuni jewelry compared to the real thing! Can YOU tell the difference? See my guide "Navajo and Zuni jewelry: A short guide on pricing" for what you can do if you've been faked out by a fake.
Council for Indigenous Arts and Culture
They have made a campaign of fighting foreign imports of fake Indian jewelry (but it seems to be a real uphill battle). Also they have a list of contributors and you can be assured those shops and merchants are selling the real deal.
Southwest Indian Arts Foundation
A group based in Santa Fe dedicated to preserving Native cultural heritage. They also run the Indian Market.
Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association
ATADA promotes the highest ethical standards in the trading of Native American goods. Members pledge to give refunds in case of a mistaken identification (at the buyer's request). If you are buying from an ATADA member you can be sure you are being dealt with fairly.
My other ebay guides have many good pictures of real Navajo and Zuni artwork and even more reference books: