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$421,000 in Bogus Indian Art, Collector Says

HOT SPRINGS, S.D. (CN) - An art collector claims in court that a dealer rolled him for $421,000 for bogus artifacts that supposedly belonged to Crazy Horse, Sitting Bull, Red Cloud and other Native American heroes.

Dr. Reuben Setliff sued Larry Belitz on Monday in Fall River County Court. He claims he paid Belitz more than $600,000 for "items represented to be authentic Native American artifacts and antiquities," but $421,000 of them were "non-authentic."

Setliff, a Sioux Falls doctor specializing in sinus care, claims that from 2008 to 2014 Belitz repeatedly contacted him "with information regarding Native American items defendant had available for sale, often including pictures and a 'story' of the item's historical and cultural significance."

Belitz told him the artifacts had "been owned and important to Crazy Horse, Red Cloud, Sitting Bull, Lone Bull, and other well-known Native American individuals and Native American tribes," according to the complaint.

Setliff claims that Belitz offered "a discount rate for certain items or bundles of items," and said he would hold items for him "despite defendant's representations that he was expecting out-of-town, and sometimes out-of-country, customers reported to be interested in the same items."

But most of the artifacts were fake, and Belitz wrote the stories about them himself, Setliff says.

Belitz operates a company called Sioux Replications out of Hot Springs, S.D., according to the Siouxland Heritage Museums website, which lists Belitz as its chief contact. Also listed as a contact on that website is photographer Franz Brown.

On his own website , Brown says that Belitz learned traditional Native American craftsmanship from elders on the Pine Ridge Reservation. "His work promoting Indian art resulted in a number of museum contacts which now regularly turn to him for restoration and reproduction work," Brown says of Belitz on his website. Brown says Belitz's work has been displayed in the Smithsonian Museum, the Chicago Field Museum and the St. Louis Arch.

The selling of authentic Native American artifacts is federally regulated. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 makes it a crime to sell any items associated with Native American burial sites, including "human remains, associated funerary items, unassociated funerary items, objects of cultural patrimony, and sacred objects," according to the Department of Justice .

The Archeological Resources Protections Act limits the distribution of Native American artifacts found on federal or tribal grounds. The two laws have forced some museums to return authentic artifacts to tribal owners.

Many states have laws addressing Native American artifacts as well.

South Dakota's Labeling of Indian Products law forbids "any person to distribute, sell, or offer for sale any article similar to American Indian art or craft which was not manufactured by the American Indian, unless such person places, immediately above such articles, a sign which states explicitly that the articles are not genuine American Indian art or craft."

Setliff seeks the $421,000 he spent on the allegedly fraudulent artifacts, and $500,000 in punitive damages for breach of contract, unjust enrichment, misrepresentation, deceptive trade, and violations of the Labeling of Indian Products law.

Belitz did not respond to a voicemail request for comment Wednesday morning.

Setliff's attorneys, Clint Sargent and Raleigh Hansman of Sioux Falls, did not respond to email and voicemail requests for comment.

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