Undercover agents purchased Rath’s work in two stores and over Facebook. (images courtesy Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington)

An artist who made and sold fake Native art was sentenced to 24 months probation and 200 hours of community service last week in violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act. Artist Lewis Anthony Rath claimed to be a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe and sold carved totem poles, masks, and pendants at Pike Place Market and Pier 54, two tourist hubs in Seattle. Rath was charged in 2021 and pled guilty earlier this year in March.

“Rath’s victims are real,” Assistant US Attorney Tate London said in a statement to the US District Court for the Western District of Washington that heard the case. “They are Indian artists, many who struggle to make a living, who lost out on sales to those who seek authentic Indian artwork; and they are also consumers who were defrauded into purchasing fake Indian art.”

The investigation into Rath started over five years ago. The Indian Arts and Crafts Board — a federal agency under the purview of the United States Department of the Interior — received a complaint that the artist was not actually an enrolled tribal member. 

In June 2019, undercover agents from the US Fish and Wildlife Service purchased $1,335 worth of Rath’s work from the Raven’s Nest Treasure store in Pike Place Market. The same day, they spent another $1,085 on a totem pole and mask from Ye Olde Curiosity Shop on Pier 54. Both sellers provided the authorities with biographies of Rath that claimed he was Native. Neither store has responded to Hyperallergic‘s immediate request for comment, but both have claimed to federal authorities that they did not know about Rath’s misrepresentation.

According to the federal prosecutor’s complaint, reviewed by Hyperallergic, undercover agents also began a month-long communication with Rath over Facebook Messenger in 2019. The artist stated that he was a member of the San Carlos Apache Tribe, and the authorities paid him $1,200 for a totem pole commission. On December 19, agents acted on a search warrant and seized protected bird feathers from Rath’s home

The artist was formally charged over a year later alongside another artist who had also misrepresented himself as Native — Jerry Van Dyke. The latter had sold work at Raven’s Nest Treasure while claiming he was a member of the Nez Perce Tribe. In May, Van Dyke was sentenced to 18 months probation.

Rath sold carved totem poles, pendants, and masks. (image courtesy US Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Washington)
Seattle’s Pike Place Market, which houses Raven’s Nest Treasure (image via Wikimedia Commons)

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.

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