- Associated Press - Friday, August 19, 2011

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) - It’s been two years since swarms of federal agents burst into nearly two dozen homes scattered throughout the archeologically rich Southwest, looking to take down what they believed was a criminal element robbing Native American grave sites and illicitly selling or trading pieces of the nation’s heritage.

Prosecutors are nearly done working their way through the list of defendants charged following those raids, having negotiated plea agreements with most that have resulted in nothing more than probation.

But for legitimate dealers and collectors of Indian artifacts, the sting in the rugged Four Corners region _ where the boundaries of Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado meet _ is as fresh today as when the raids happened that summer day in 2009.

Since then, they’ve been struggling to rebuild their reputations and to dispel the “fantasy” that they are part of a black market dealing in rare, pricey bits of American history _ an illusory underground network which, they argue, doesn’t exist at all.

“There’s not that much crime in this business. It’s a very tiny fringe element,” said Dace Hyatt, a restoration expert from Show Low, Ariz., who has served as an expert in some of the cases stemming from the raids.

Hyatt and fellow members of the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association organized a discussion on the raids this week during the Whitehawk Antique Show, the nation’s largest and longest-running Indian artifacts show.

The concerns raised during the meeting echoed what dealers and collectors first brought up a year ago: that the federal government should not have relied on undercover informant Ted Gardiner to make their case.

This time Hyatt was armed with federal court documents that he obtained while working on the cases as part of an effort to determine the market value of some of the items that Gardiner had purchased with government funds as part of the sting operation. The value was key in determining whether the defendants would be charged with federal felonies, rather than misdemeanors.

In one case, Gardiner paid $2,800 for four stones that looked like nothing more than skipping rocks. At best, Hyatt said, the stones could have fetched $100 on the open market.

The FBI evidence list referred to the stones as three prayer sticks and a mountain lion fetish. After seeing photographs, the dealers and collectors in the audience let out a roar of laughter at the suggestion.

The markup for the 25 items that Hyatt reviewed averaged more than 700 percent, he said.

“To me, it’s a cut and dry case where the government was clearly inducing felony charges with an erroneous value system,” he said. “I know that’s a pretty hard statement to make when you’re dealing with the FBI and the BLM.

“The facts don’t lie and when you’re on the right side of truth, it gives you an element of confidence and these are irrefutable facts,” he said, referring to what the market is willing to bear for arrowhead collections, pendants, shell necklaces and other artifacts.

Hyatt and others said people were harassed and the case was blown out of proportion.

“Three prayer sticks? A mountain lion fetish? These are just a few rocks,” he said. “People started to take their lives and that’s the tragedy of it.”

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