SAN ANTONIO, Texas — A federal grand jury has indicted a Texas man over allegations that he sold fake Native American jewelry via a popular e-commerce platform.
Kevin Kowalis, 58, was charged with four counts of mail fraud and four counts of misrepresenting Indian goods, as prohibited by the Indian Arts and Crafts Act.
According to the indictment, Kowalis marketed and sold jewelry made in the Philippines as Native American-made pieces from January through June of last year. The federal prosecutors allege in the indictment that Kowalis used eBay to market and sell the pieces, which he labeled as “Native American Indian Handmade,” “Zuni,” “Navajo” and “genuine Indian handcrafted,” and accepted payments via PayPal.
Kowalis then used the U.S. Postal Service to deliver the fraudulent items, according to the indictment.
The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Western District of Texas, along with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of the Interior’s Indian Arts and Crafts Board, unsealed the charges earlier this week.
“The Indian Arts and Crafts Board is responsible for the Indian Arts and Crafts Act, which makes it a crime to sell counterfeit Indian art and craftwork. The Board is committed to protecting the integrity of Indian art. Texas has a vibrant Indian art market and we want consumers to have confidence that they are purchasing authentic work,” IACB Director Meredith Stanton said in a statement.
Stanton said the indictment and arrest served as “a vital step in protecting Indian artists, economies, and culture.”
Kowalis, who is presumed innocent until proven guilty, faces up to 20 years in federal prison for mail fraud and up to five years in prison for misrepresenting Indian goods.
The IACB is charged with promoting authentic Native art and has a concerted effort to help Native American artists learn about intellectual property protections, as well as helps to root out counterfeit products from the marketplace.
In a previous Tribal Business News report, Stanton said the IACB receives approximately 60 complaints per month of counterfeit American Indian artwork. The board’s anti-counterfeit efforts are aimed at preserving a key cultural and economic engine for Native American artists, she said.
“If counterfeits are out-selling authentic Alaska Native and American Indian art, then that means that dollars that should be going into the pockets of Indian and Alaska Native artists are going into the pockets of people making money off of the back of Indian artists and basically stealing from them,” Stanton said in a March report for Tribal Business News. “If Native artists can’t compete in the marketplace with the counterfeits, they’re going to stop making the work. It’s just not cost effective for them.”
Edward Grace, assistant director of the USFWS Office of Law Enforcement, echoed those sentiments.
“Native American art fraud is a serious crime that hurts consumers and severely impacts the economic and cultural livelihood of Native American artists, craftspeople and Tribes,” Grace said in a statement. “Our special agents investigate crimes in violation of the Indian Arts and Crafts Act on behalf of the U.S. Department of the Interior and the Indian Arts and Crafts Board. By working together, we can help protect and preserve Native American art and craftwork for future generations.”
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