Artists Use Facebook to Combat Copyright Infringement

Lucinda Turner

The Vancouver based Facebook group Fraudulent Native Art Exposed (FNAE) was created in 2017 by Derek Edenshaw (a Haida artist) in conjunction with Lucinda Turner. Lucinda, an ally and carver who for 27 years partnered with the late Nisga’a artist, Norman Tait, was inspired to act after discovering multiple unauthorized copies of Norman’s work being sold on the internet and on the streets of Vancouver. FNAE focuses on exposing and rectifying the threat posed by the explosion of fraudulent British Columbian Northwest Coast (NWC) art being used or sold over the internet, in flea markets, souvenir shops, on the streets of B.C., and in Art Galleries without regard to the provenance of the original works.

Hundreds of masks have been copied from the books Spirit Faces and Mythic Beings by Spirit Wrestler Gallery owner Gary Wyatt, including works by Norman Tait, Robert Davidson, Terry Starr and more. These books were sent to the Philippines, images of the masks copied, then shipped to Canada and around the world. One Bill of Lading claimed 350,000 kg of “wooden totems and masks” were in a single shipping container. These carvings are priced well below market value and, to the untrained eye, look authentic.

In a particularly sensitive case, BUDWEISER ® BEER replicated part of the image of a totem pole carved by Robert Yelton (a drug and alcohol counsellor), turned it into a cardboard cutout and used it as a promotional exhibit at alcohol outlets throughout the USA.

Recently, we notified a European museum that we suspected a mask in their collection of Northwest Coast Indigenous art was a fake, which confirmed their suspicions about its authenticity. Fraud and misrepresentation impact even the highest levels.

The internet has created opportunities for large scale marketing of fraudulent and copied Indigenous art, ceremonial artifacts, and clothing. Online auction sites like eBay and make it difficult to distinguish between authentic indigenous masks from those copied and mass-produced elsewhere. For example, one overseas “knock-off” mask on eBay was categorized under “US Native American Masks and Headdresses”, an authentic Indigenous category. It was titled “Pacific Northwest Shaman’s Ancestor Mask Hand-Carved and Signed”. Other carvings have used the designation “native-style” or “Haidastyle”, allowing them to slip through the American Arts and Crafts legislation.

Frequently “Power Sellers” disguise the provenance of the piece by stating they were purchased at estate sales. A fraudulent copy of a Haida artists’ “Thunderbird” mask originally created in 1992 for an exhibition and published in Gary Wyatt’s 1994 Spirit Faces, was recently found on eBay selling for $225. The mask was categorized under “Ethnic and Cultural Collectables” – “US Native American Collectables (1935 to now)” – “US American Masks and Headdresses” and described as “Northwest Coast Wooden Mask, signed, Eagle Thunder Dog, 1982” The seller explained that the “signature and date seemed to be blurry” but vouched for the authenticity of the artist stating “I have in the past sold Northwest Coast Wooden masks from (sic) this same artist having no issues, I acquired a nice selection from his estate in Oregon. Nice stuff, he is a descendant from the Chippewa…” Versions of the original mask are repeatedly found by FNAE members for sale on online sites.

A common forgery we have discovered are designs being redrawn or copied, then sold as originals. There are Button Blanket designs made into duvets and street wear and images of original works and “native-inspired” designs printed onto t-shirts, mugs and pillows. Rarely will any of the original artists be contacted for their permission or credited for their own work. One Canadian artist commented on our FNAE page by identifying the original artist of the copied mask: “That Chief on the top is a rip-off of my Dad’s mask!” Another artist told us that the picture of the fake totem poles brought tears to his eyes because those were his family’s poles that had been replicated by overseas producers.

After speaking to ten lawyers in both Canada and the USA, we were advised that even though the masks were direct copies, Canadian artists are limited to enforcing copyright infringement laws one piece at a time, due to the lack of misrepresentation legislation in Canada. In contrast, American law criminalizes misrepresentation of Indigenous art and even has a “Fake Art” Hotline. An American Jewelry Store owner was recently sentenced under their Arts and Crafts Act to six months and fined $9,000 for fraudulently selling jewelry made in the Philippines and advertised as “Native-American” made.

When members of FNAE find internet sites (User-Generated Content Platforms) selling copied NWC art without recognizing or compensating the original artists, we advise the artist and, with their permission, submit a formal complaint through the website. In most cases these “take down” letters result in the removal of the appropriated designs within a timely manner.

Buyers are entitled to know who the artists are and from where the art originates. In 2019, B.C. Tourism estimated the tourism industry at $18 billion. In the same year, The Discourse (an online magazine) found 62.5% of the tourist shops they checked sold both inauthentic and authentic products nestled side by side on their shelves and only 25% of the stores in Vancouver exclusively sold authentic items that they could confirm were produced by or in collaboration with Indigenous artists who had been credited and compensated for their work.

When we found a knock-off of Arlene Ness’s mask “Shaman” being sold for $400 in a Vancouver gift store, the staff advised me that “Indians on the reservation carved it. They don’t make many of these anymore”. Reputable galleries promote the artists and provide legitimate markets by ensuring the art they sell is from authentic sources. However, two major B.C. galleries have recently closed their doors: “Spirit Wrestler Gallery” and “Hills Arts and Crafts”.

There are ways to safeguard these traditional cultural expressions from misuse and misidentification. Above all, Indigenous art needs clear identification so it is easy for a buyer to determine if the work is authentic or not. NWC Indigenous artists need a system such as the Canadian “Igloo Tag Trademark” that protects Inuit artists from fraud, cultural appropriation, and theft by distinguishing between authentic Inuit works from those using Arctic imagery. Further, the introduction of an Indigenous Artists Registry would enable a direct link to the artist’s portfolio and provide artists with a place to document designs, control ownership and track works as they are sold.

We need legislation and monetary penalties for misrepresenting the origins of a piece (similar to the US laws) in order to discourage this pervasive practice. Customs officers must be empowered to hold or prohibit unauthorized shipping of art that does not conform to their guidelines.

Information pamphlets on where and how to buy Indigenous art should be distributed in tourist areas and on the ferries in order to teach how to identify authentic art, and what to ask. Questions such as can the staff tell you where the product is from, what is the artist’s name and nation and does the artist receive royalties?

Canada must act now to legislate and enforce those laws so that the tremendous contributions by Indigenous people to the cultural and artistic heritage of our country, and to their own livelihood, will no longer be stolen, copied, and misappropriated by unscrupulous marketers.

Lucinda Turner

Lucinda Turner (1958) studied Art at the Emily Carr University of Art + Design, and Sciences at Langara College, Vancouver, BC. In 1990 Lucinda started an apprenticeship with Nisga’a artist Norman Tait (1941-2016) that evolved into a 26-year partnership. In 1995 they opened “Wilp’s Tsa-ak Gallery-House of the Mischievous Man” and started the carving school “Klee Wyck Carvers” both located in West Vancouver. They created two commissions for the Vancouver Stock Exchange as well as many other carvings in private and public collections around the world.

Shortly after Norman’s death in 2016, Lucinda discovered counterfeit copies of his masks being sold on the internet which has led her to the development of 3 Facebook groups. “Fraudulent Native Art Exposed and More” (created by Derek Edenshaw) addresses
the misuse, appropriation and theft of Indigenous art and designs. “Native Art Direct from Artists” showcases current and past NWC Indigenous art. “Museum Collections Unlocked” contains museum databases from around the world. Lucinda’s most recent work was to co-create with Bree Madory, the “Pacific Northwest Coast Artists Registry”, a list of over 1,000 NWC Indigenous artists including photos and contact information.

We need legislation and monetary penalties for misrepresenting the origins of a piece (similar to the US laws) in order to discourage this pervasive practice.

Lucinda Turner

“As the creator of a new artistic movement within Indigenous contemporary art, Morrisseau challenged the Canadian art establishment to make space for Indigenous art, to make Canadians think about Indigenous aesthetics and inserted spirituality into an art market that in 1962 was consumed by abstraction.As the creator of a new artistic movement within Indigenous contemporary art, Morrisseau challenged the Canadian art establishment to make space for Indigenous art, to make Canadians think about Indigenous aesthetics and inserted spirituality into an art market that in 1962 was consumed by abstraction.

Carmen Robertson