The case could
be a watershed moment in a long-overdue crackdown on fake Native
piece of jewelry advertised on the Facebook page for Al Zuni
Global Jewelry Wholesale, which stands accused of manufacturing
counterfeit Native American goods in the Philippines to import
and illegally sell in the US. Photo courtesy of Al Zuni Global
Law enforcement is finally cracking down on the scourge of counterfeit
Native American jewelry, which has run rampant in the Southwest
for decades. A watershed moment is set to arrive on March 27, with
the sentencing of Albuquerque jewelry dealer Nael Ali, who has pleaded
guilty to fraudulently selling "Native American" jewelry made in
"Our arts and crafts give us a really concrete way to stay connected
to our culture and our history," Navajo jeweler Liz Wallace told
National Geographic. "All this fake stuff feels like a very deep
personal attack." Counterfeits also threaten Native craftspeople's
livelihoods with cheap, sweatshop goods that price out handmade
originals. It's an illegal industry that has gone largely uncheckeduntil
Ali and his middleman, Mohammad Manasra, were the first jewelry
dealers ever to be charged with violating the Indian Arts and Crafts
Act, which since 1935 had made it a federal crime to misrepresent
artwork as being Native American-made. First-time violators can
face fines of up to $250,000 and five years in jail. At sentencing,
Ali could be the first person sent to prison under the law.
New Mexico store dedicated to Native American crafts and jewelry,
run members of the region's large Palestinian community. Photo
courtesy of Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images.
Ali's arrest was part of Operation Al Zuni, an Office of Law
Enforcement for the Southwest Region of the US Fish and Wildlife
Service investigation. Begun in 2012, it targeted Al Zuni Global
Jewelry, which bills itself as the "largest wholesaler of Indian
Now, investigators have identified two companiesboth of
which Ali identified as his suppliersas operating what amounts
to the largest-ever Native American art fraud conspiracy in history.
Both organizations are run by Palestinian families and import counterfeit
Native American goods manufactured in factories in the Philippines.
The two networks are the Sterling Coalition, run, like Al Zuni,
by members of the Khalaf family, and the Aysheh brothers. The Khalafs,
led by Nashat Khalaf and his brothers, have been in the business
of Native American artwork since 1972, their success leading many
other Palestinians to join the market. According to Nat Geo, a Department
of the Interior investigator was informed of Al Zuni's activities
as early as 1994, but law enforcement didn't raid New Mexico jewelry
stores until 2015.
photo on the Facebook page for Al Zuni Global Jewelry Wholesale,
which stands accused of manufacturing counterfeit Native American
goods in the Philippines to import and illegally sell in the
US. Photo courtesy of Al Zuni Global Jewelry Wholesale.
In 2012, Fish and Wildlife Service special agent Russell Stanford
intercepted a shipment from the Khalafs' overseas factories and
marked the jewelry with invisible ink, only to send the package
on its way. Stanford later went undercover at Nael Ali's Albuquerque
store, where his purchases, viewed under ultraviolet light, revealed
the secret markings.
That breakthrough led, eventually, to the raid and Ali's landmark
guilty plea. Four of the Aysheh brothers were charged last February,
with a trial scheduled for October. Investigators have accused the
Khalafs in affidavits filed in connection with search warrant applications,
but have yet to file charges against members of the family. Investigators
estimate that one of their companies, Sterling Islands, imported
$11.8 million in contraband jewelry in the five years leading up
to the raids. Both families deny selling fraudulent goods.