The Sheiks of Zuni : Middle East Family Seeking To Control Lucrative Tribal Art Markets?

©2007. Turtle Heart, Ojibwe Artist for the AICAP Group

Middle Eastern family Business associates (possibly one family in control) are moving to dominate and control American Indian Art sales in the lucrative Southwest.

When I first starting visiting around in Indian country, as we call it,1975 or so, I was surprised to see so many art galleries selling American Indian Art. A lot of this art was really fantastic. In those days the Indians were still making art for themselves, for other Indians. Believe me there is a big difference in the art Indian people make for themselves and the art they come more and more to make only for the sales at market. This is the quality of stuff you would see everywhere. fantastic things of great beauty.

I first came to the plaza in Santa Fe, for example, at 2 in the morning. I had been driving all night. The plaza was utterly quiet and deserted. Every shop was crammed full of masterpieces of bead-works, fetish necklaces, cradle boards for babies, beaded clothing. It was an astonishing show of every kind of art in the big windows with only the night and the street lights.

Now it is very different. Who knows where this stuff comes from now. Designer galleries. Imports from every country, The old Indian galleries are now long gone. Large blocks of some of the best old and historic art galleries have been bought up by a family group of Palestinians (as far as I have gathered so far) . They sell stuff at really high prices and then come way down when you talk to them. They are fast and impatient and rude…. and they have so much money that they can fill a huge store in a single day ($200,000.00 inventories in a single day). They tend to buy art by the truckload. They have now made huge moves to control the shops in the plazas of Taos, Gallup, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque.

Yes, the artists could sell elsewhere. When they can, they do. The business around the area do not always have money and also there are many artists, so that way is not always open. It can take a long time to find a customer that will give you a fair price, especially these days. This family always has cash. Cash right now, but they decide the price.

Their influence on tribal Indian art markets is becoming gigantic and I am sad to say negative, greedy and indifferent. Yes, if you know nothing, they may seem like charming people. Their culture produces outstanding sales people. They understand this kind of market very well. Try asking some pointed questions or watch, if you can them buy some things from a group of waiting artists. It is not very pretty. Indian artists controlled by a rich middle-eastern family. No one pays much attention to this except the neighbor galleries around them, which have a hard time competing. The typical tourist is really so poorly informed, that it makes almost no difference. They do not notice season by season the many magical and original art and artists that disappear beneath the dust of this industrial strength trade assualt on American Indian Art.

They pay the artist, who are living in very remote areas, cash on the spot; usually it is pennies to the dollar. I wonder if people can understand how bad this really is for everybody except these middle eastern families? It is a brutal transformation of the scene I first saw in the 1970s. These galleries feel like the land after clear cut logging but with boutiques instead of acres of dead trees.

I guess they have seen a good opportunity to make money. They began their family operations many years ago with a shop in Zuni Pueblo. The Zuni make pretty much the finest American Indian jewelry… period. Their multi generational arts are one of the most valuable and important sources of significant indigenous art in the world. Their village is remote. If you have cash and a lot of it is is possible to go there and buy a lot of things really cheap. It is a crazy situation. The modern world has been moving in on this little Pueblo steadily over the decades, but at least the greedy old white people who built up the gallery business for this art paid much better prices and tended to reward those artists who were exceptional in pretty fair ways. Those days are pretty much gone. It is like art under warfare. Dancing under the gun. The Middle Eastern people have invaded a tiny population of tribes(who have only themselves to protect them) with a lucrative, millions and millions (maybe) of dollars.

The American Indian art market is more and more substantially controlled by these people.

Maybe someone with the resources should investigate this situation. Usually American Indian issues don’t mean a whole hell of a lot to modern journalism or society in general for that matter. There are fewer and fewer galleries which offer what they call American Indian Art on the up and up. Buyer beware. I know I would like to know a lot more about who these people are....or maybe more importantly I wonder what it is we can do to keep the money and the opportunities these fine artists need and deserve back into a respectful and balanced system. This kind of approach is already creating failed artists and family businesses, and a new generation of master workers who get paid almost nothing for making some of the finest, most lovely things on this earth. The Zuni and the other Pueblos in particular have built their art traditions over many generations and it is this creative work that is in danger now.

I first became aware of this situation in the early 1980's. At first it has moved very slowly. However, in the last five years it seems to have become an all out push. In a tour of the southwest gallery towns last year I specifically asked independent gallery owners what the story was. Every one I talked to said they had been approached by agents of this family with offers of cash to buy them out. All together we may be talking about 400 or more galleries with inventories in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

When I talk to my friends about it, it now seems like common knowledge among Indian artists and their friends. Certainly savvy collectors have noticed this. I don't have anything against anybody. Maybe it is bad timing to have to say they are Arabic culture people. Rather than who it is my biggest concern is what it is doing to the artists, what effect it is having on the art. This region is one of the most important art distribution areas for all American Indian artists and collectors. I suspect the money is going away from the community, probably away from the country. I do not believe they have stepped up as protectors of tribal art. I think they are business people who know where there is money and a situation where they can make a move. I wonder how easy it is to move Indian art money over to the Palestinians, for example? Curiously in several of the plazas where they have moved in, they own the galleries at the four corners.

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