- Associated Press - Friday, March 13, 2015

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Albuquerque Police Officer Martin Smith was making a final sweep of a condemned apartment that had become a hangout for heroin and meth addicts. It was on the city’s list to be boarded up.

On the floor, he found an art portfolio case that contained more than $30,000 worth of prints by the late-American Indian artist Al Momaday.

There was the Apache fire dancer, the Kiowa Madonna, the ghost rider and the buffalo skull - all signed and numbered. Smith recognized the name and a quick Google search confirmed his suspicions that they were special.

“It was nothing that should have been left in a drug den,” Smith said.

After enlisting the help of curators at the Albuquerque Museum, police learned that the artwork had been stolen from a storage belonging to Momaday’s estate in Santa Fe.

How the prints ended up inside a former Albuquerque meth lab remains a bit of a mystery, but Momaday’s granddaughter, writer and filmmaker Jill Momaday, said Friday she was thankful Smith spotted them and realized their significance.

“My grandfather’s work, his paintings, were known all over the world and for the family, this is sacred to us,” she said. “This is really, really special artwork and our cultural heritage is something that we hold very close to our hearts.”

The family didn’t realize the artwork had been stolen until they saw a television news story in early February.

Momaday said the prints, still packed inside the black portfolio, were just as she remembered them.

“It’s remarkable that it was found, and it’s a miracle that it was returned to us,” she said.

Al Momaday’s paintings depicting his Native American heritage have gained international acclaim and are featured in galleries around the country. He also created plaques for Albuquerque churches.

Born in 1913 in Oklahoma, Momaday became a teacher and married Natachee Scott at Jemez Pueblo. He helped bring Native American art lessons to New Mexico. He died in 1981.

He was the father of N. Scott Momaday, the first American Indian to win a Pulitzer Prize for literature.

Jill Momaday said having the prints returned means a lot to her father, who is also a painter.

She said there has been talk about putting together a collective art exhibition in Oklahoma that would include the work of her father and grandparents and she’s working on a documentary that will trace the influence of art through her family and the Kiowa people.

Smith said the investigation into the theft continues. Investigators have some suspects, but he declined to provide details.

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