A fine Eastern Pende Panya-Gombe African mask. Coll.: David Norden
Photo By: michael m. koehler
comment: We don't know we deal in contemporary decorative African Art is one thing, but we didn't know we also deal in endangered species is another... David Norden
Tusk Luck : What's gray, has a trunk and could send you to prison for 40 years?
Like most of their West Philadelphia neighbors, small-business owners Kim Johnson and Virginia Smith live paycheck to paycheck. In their case, making ends meet means selling African art on the Internet.
"We got into it about eight or nine years ago for the love of the art," Johnson says, loud enough to be heard over the incessant ruckus from the nearby Market-Frankford El construction project. "We were tired of people selling this beautiful art and not knowing where it was from, its function or spiritual significance, so we decided to do it ourselves."
That business, however, now has both women facing decades in prison and a multimillion-dollar fine. Seems the U.S. Attorney's office isn't keen on "beautiful art" that allegedly comes from endangered and threatened animals.
According to an indictment announced by U.S. Attorney Pat Meehan late last month, those items included an ivory elephant tusk, two elephant-hair bracelets, a gorilla skull, three masks containing the fur of colobus monkeys and skin from pythons, tigers and jaguars. The items, officials said, were sold on AuthenticAfrica.com. The gorilla skull went for $1,500; the elephant tusk, $2,500; a tiger skin, $5,500; and a jaguar skin, $8,000.
Meehan maintained the women knowingly broke laws designed to protect "species of wildlife from extinction." Johnson, who claims she was misquoted in subsequent articles about the matter, says that not only are the charges trumped up, but that they were entrapped by federal officials. She maintains she didn't know the animals were endangered and that she only dealt in such merchandise at the request of the undercover agent.
Johnson says the feds have had it out for the business since 2002, when an agent from the Department of the Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service confiscated what was purported to be illegal elephant-hair bracelets. But later, Johnson says, "we received a letter of apology [from Fish and Wildlife] saying that the bracelets were not authentic." Thinking they were OK, the pair continued selling the art and legal skins from antelopes, springboks, kudus and impalas until they were approached by the so-called client/buyer who was actually working undercover.
"She asked me did I sell tiger skins so I told her no, but then I found a Web site that did, so I became a middleman," says Johnson, 48, who lives near 51st and Market streets. "She continued to come to me with exotic requests that I didn't normally sell and was willing to pay top dollar for them. She's the only person that I sold things like ivory tusk to, no one else.
"In order to sell the items at a competitive price to her, I embellished the stories of how I obtained them. It's part of the mystery of this business. The clients love to hear that and tell their friends."
Story or not, based on sales made to that woman in December of 2002 and March and December of 2003, Johnson and Smith now face charges that they violated the Endangered Species Act, which makes it unlawful to take or kill any endangered species within the United States or to possess, sell, or transport any endangered species from anywhere in the world.
"The defendants made more than $38,000 selling these items," says Meehan. "They knowingly imported the material into the U.S. and knew what they were doing was against a law which was written to protect wildlife."
Johnson says there was no smuggling involved; rather, they purchased the items in question from game reserves, circuses or zoos that sell them after an animal dies.
"You can buy ivory tusks on eBay," says Johnson, adding that agents ransacked her home and confiscated art and files. "I don't have any hunters on my payroll. I don't even have a passport. If you believe the charges and the articles, you would think we were millionaires. If they think they have some major bust in this business, they are badly mistaken."
Holding back tears, Johnson concludes, "I'm trying figure out why they are coming after us because we aren't making any real money. I have $150 in the bank and I just wrote an $80 check, and they want to give me  years with a [$2.2] million fine?"
Since neither woman says they can afford a private attorney, they've been assigned to a public defender. They're expected to turn themselves in soon or face arrest.
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