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Skagway shopkeeper wins native art scam case

 Original story below:

The owner and an employee of local art shop Lynch and Kennedy Dry Goods Inc. are being charged with two federal misdemeanor counts of knowingly offering and displaying goods as Alaska Native made, while knowing they were not.

Under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act it is unlawful to offer, display for sale or sell any goods in a manner that falsely suggests it was Indian-produced, an Indian product, or the product of a particular Indian tribe.

According to court documents released last week, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service agents approached storeowner Rosemary V. Libert and employee Judy M. Gengler on five different occasions as part of an undercover investigation.

Gengler was first approached in July 2014, when an undercover agent entered the store and asked about a bone carving. While the agent knew the carving was not Alaska Native or Indian made, Gengler falsely represented that an individual who was Native or First Nation and Eskimo had created it. According to the documents, she said First Nation was similar to an Indian or American Indian tribe in the Lower 48 and that Eskimos were “Natives who lived way up in the Arctic.” She offered the carving for $2,000.

The agent returned shortly thereafter and advised Gengler that the artist was in fact born in Cambodia and was not Native Alaskan or Eskimo. Gengler produced an artist biography and agreed that the artist was from Cambodia, but had been adopted by a Juneau family and given an Eskimo name.

Gengler was approached again in September 2014. The agent identified himself and asked if she knew that the aforementioned artist was Native. Gengler said the artist was not Native and said the store did not have an artist biography.

Libert was also questioned about the same bone carving that month. She said the artist was not Native Indian or Eskimo, but was a native Alaskan resident for many years.

But in June 2015, the same undercover USFWS agent approached Libert and asked about a bone carving that the agent knew was not Alaska Native made. Libert falsely reported that an Alaska Native, who was also Eskimo, made the piece. The agent then purchased the piece for $1,160.50 and confirmed that it was not Alaska Native made.

Documents report that Libert was again contacted in September 2015. The agents identified themselves and asked about the bone sculpture sold in June. She said it was not made by a Native or a member of an American Indian tribe. She said the supplier was someone she has known for over 20 years and had never misrepresented to Libert that the artist was Native. She explained to the agents that Native is Eskimo or the northwest coast Inuits. She said the carver lives in Alaska but is not Native or Indian.

Libert and Gengler are each charged with one misdemeanor count of misrepresenting Indian produced goods. Should they be found guilty, they could face a maximum sentence of up to one year in prison and a $100,000 fine. Their arraignment is scheduled for April 18.

Lynch and Kennedy is one of six Southeast businesses being charged with similar counts. In Juneau, Vinod “Vinny” L. Sippy with Diamond Island, Icy Strait and Gemstone Heaven is charged, as is Norma M. Carandang with Northstar Gift Shop. Ketchikan business owner Gabriel T. Karim of Alaskan Heritage is also charged.

Prosecutor U.S. Attorney Jack Schmidt said the investigation was started because of complaints.

“[It] resulted in an operation that we decided to go and do spot checks on businesses. Those that we felt were effectively misrepresenting, we went back and investigated further,” he said.

Skagway isn’t a stranger to misrepresentation in the art world. Last summer the Skagway Police Department dealt with an array of jewelry store complaints. Customers paid top dollar for gemstones and gold rings, but once they arrived home, discovered the pieces were gold plated or not real at all.

Mayor Mark Schaefer said he has been brainstorming ways to combat the problem, including a marketing scheme to let stores know that their misrepresentations are known and won’t be tolerated. He said he wants to hear from the public in an effort to keep Skagway away from a bad reputation.

“This has come around before. This isn’t the first time we’re talking about this,” he said. “A little different subject matter, but the community and the government recognize that that’s not going to fly.”

Lynch and Kennedy operates out of a building owned by the Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park. Under the terms of their lease, they are prohibited from misrepresenting art as Alaska Native made.

According to the lease, “merchandise that is improperly labeled as to its source, manufacture or nature” may not be stored, sold or displayed.

KGRNHP Superintendent Mike Tranel said while Libert is innocent until proven guilty, should she be convicted, she would be in violation of the lease agreement.

However, Karl Klupar is also partial owner of the shop, and Tranel said there could be a way for Klupar to continue the business if Libert were found guilty.

“That’s a question for we have to look at and probably run through our lawyer if and when it gets to that point,” he said.

Libert declined to comment.