The hefty reward being offered for a stolen Zuni kachina is for real, according to a Santa Fe antiques dealer who said he’s working on behalf of an anonymous pueblo. Claudio Ortega contacted the Journal on Thursday and said he has been circulating a flier offering $75,000 for the 1880s kachina, which was stolen from the Millicent Rogers Museum in Taos on Dec. 7.
Ortega said the pueblo is offering $75,000 for the 17-inch doll because pueblo representatives are “afraid that the piece will leave the country, and they’ll never see it again.”
“(The reward) is not a hoax,” he said.
But the offer worries museum officials, who fear that if someone takes Ortega up on the offer, they may never see the kachina again. The museum purchased the piece at auction in 1974, according to executive director Shelby Tisdale. She has declined to reveal the kachina’s value.
If a pueblo thinks it has a right to the piece, Tisdale said, it should pursue it legally- through the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. The 1990 federal law outlines procedures for determining the rights of American Indian tribes to objects of cultural patrimony.
“It’s still stolen property,” Tisdale said. “Even if they pay and they get it back, they’re receiving stolen property. If they want it back, they need to go through the proper channels.”
Ortega said he does not work with law enforcement. His relationship with police, in fact, has been a contentious one. Last year, Santa Fe police and State Police circulated a photo of Ortega describing him as a “person of interest” in the theft of pottery from a Santa Fe gallery. Ortega, whom police called “Big Bird,” was never considered a suspect or charged with the crime, police said.
In 1998, State Police charged Ortega with four counts of heroin trafficking and other drug charges during a large bust in Las Vegas, N.M. The charges were later dropped.
“I don’t have any respect for them,” Ortega told the Journal last year.
A State Police spokesman had no comment on Ortega’s involvement in the Zuni kachina case.
“Our main focus is that it’s returned to the rightful owner,” Lt. Jimmy Glascock said.
Ortega said that an American Indian contact who approached him about aiding in the recovery made no promises that the kachina, should it surface, would be returned to the museum.
“He said, ‘I guess it’s up to the governor of the pueblo,’ ” Ortega said. “… they just said it was a Native American piece, and it belongs to their people.”
Ortega declined to reveal which pueblo he was working with, but did say he was receiving a $5,000 finder’s fee for his work. Ortega’s flier identifies the kachina as a rare Zuni treasure, but a Zuni pueblo leader on Wednesday said his tribe was not offering the reward.
“If it’s not Zuni, and it’s another pueblo, then it’s really illegal,” Tisdale said. “You can’t request items that don’t belong to your tribe.”
According to Ortega’s flier, no questions will be asked for the return of the kachina, which bears the mask of a horned cow and is adorned in feathers, horsehair and glass beads. If the kachina is returned with any damage, the reward will not be paid, the flier states.
Ortega said he has dealt with antiques and western and American Indian art for years, and has previously helped recover rare items acting independently through private contacts.