Operation Al Zuni
SmartWater used to jail offender in ‘most extensive’ federal investigation into Native American art fraud
Global anti-racketeering campaigners, the Antiquities Coalition, have highlighted the work of the SmartWater Foundation, the not-for-
This follows the jailing of the first ever individual under the Indian Arts and Crafts Act (US), a milestone only made possible by SmartWater evidence.
In early September 2012, Fish and Wildlife Service Special Agent Russell Stanford intercepted a shipment of counterfeit jewellery bound for Albuquerque, New Mexico. Authorities suspected this jewellery would be sold as Native American-made, even though it was actually produced in the Philippines. Instead of seizing the counterfeit artefacts, Special Agent Stanford applied a few dabs of SmartWater to the illicit jewellery, a forensic countermeasure to the trade in fake cultural heritage objects.
SmartWater is an internationally accredited liquid ‘nanotechnology’ that is odourless, colourless, and invisible to the naked eye. This traceable liquid is coded with a patented forensic technology that contains a unique signature, when brushed or sprayed on, is completely undetectable except by ultraviolet (UV) light. When applied to artifacts, SmartWater provides information to law enforcement about an artifact’s place of origin. Law enforcement can then use this provenance information in court, as SmartWater evidence is both Frye and Daubert compliant.
In March 2012, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service began using SmartWater in Operation Al Zuni, the most extensive federal investigation into Native American art fraud ever conducted. Over a period of three and a half years, federal agents uncovered an elaborate network involving Filipino jewelry manufacturers and U.S. importers. After purchasing the counterfeit jewellery from the Philippines, U.S. importers—such as Nael Ali of Gallery 8—illegally sold the artefacts as Native American-made.
The illicit network of counterfeit Native American jewelry uncovered by Operation Al Zuni.
Map from National Geographic.
Falsely representing artefacts for sale as Native American-made is a federal crime according to the 1935 and 1990 Indian Arts and Crafts Act. For a first time violation of the Act, an individual can face civil or criminal penalties of up to a $250,000 fine and a 5 year prison sentence. However, up until the conviction and sentencing of Nael Ali, the Act was rarely enforced.
Congress enacted the Indian Arts and Crafts Act to bring attention to the fact that many Native Americans rely on their arts and crafts for economic and cultural reasons. The sale of Native American crafts, such as jewellery, provide livelihoods for thousands of indigenous people and brings in more than a billion dollars annually nationwide. These arts and crafts also provide cultural benefits. One Navajo jeweler, Liz wallace, said: “Our arts and crafts give us a really concrete way to stay connected to our culture and our history. All this fake stuff feels like a very deep personal attack.”
In October 2018, U.S. District Judge Judith C. Herrera of the District of New Mexico sentenced Nael Ali for violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Ali, who plead guilty, was sentenced to six months imprisonment as well as a $9,000 fine. This sentencing marked the first time in which an individual was sent to jail for violating the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.
SmartWater serves as a forensic deterrent for more than fraud. Throughout the 21st century, SmartWater has been applied to a vast array of cultural heritage sites, from Shakespeare’s birthplace in Stratford-upon-Avon to Syrian museums threatened by civil conflict. Each SmartWater application strengthens the precedent that those who engage in the looting and trafficking of antiquities will be caught and prosecuted, a mission the Antiquities Coalition and the SmartWater Foundation share as partners against cultural racketeering.
To find out more about the work of the SmartWater Foundation – visit the site here>