U.S. Man Caught with Illicit Inuit Art at Border Raises Questions Over Art Exports

Sculptures made of different kinds of stone sit in the window at Images Boréales, an Inuit art gallery in Old Montreal. Dave St-Amant/CBC

In a recent turn of events that highlights the complexity of Inuit art exports, a U.S. citizen, Pedro Huertas, was apprehended at the Highgate Springs border crossing in Vermont, with illegal wildlife products. According to a criminal complaint filed in U.S. court, Huertas, an American doctor, attempted to cross from Canada into the U.S. on July 25, 2021, with several statues, including ones made from sperm whale teeth and a walrus tusk.

This case has reignited the debate over the export of Inuit art, particularly pieces made from materials of protected species like whales, walruses, and seals. According to CBC News, the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) and various country-specific laws, make exporting such art pieces challenging, even when they are crafted from legally hunted animals by Inuit or from remains found naturally.

Barry Kent Mackay, the director of the Animal Alliance of Canada, emphasized to CBC News the importance of such treaties. “The laws are there to protect animals even if they inconvenience people, including a carver in the far North, or an art gallery in Montreal or an American who wants an ornament on his coffee table,” he stated.

Sculptures like these ones, carved from whale bone and other marine mammal parts, can’t be exported to the U.S. without permits, which artists and dealers say are nearly impossible to get. Christopher Langenzarde/CBC

Huertas initially claimed possession of only one $2,000 stone statue. However, a thorough inspection of his vehicle led to the discovery of nine bubble-wrapped packages, including the controversial items. When questioned, Huertas and his wife refused to cooperate with the border guards.

Days later, Huertas presented documentation, including certificates of authenticity, claiming the items were decades old, which if true, could have exempted him from charges. Investigations revealed that these documents were falsified at Huertas’s request by Images Boréales, a prominent Inuit art gallery in Old Montreal.

The U.S. authorities charged Huertas with knowingly importing endangered species parts without proper permits. Similarly, the owner and an employee of Images Boréales face charges in Canada for allegedly falsifying documents and possessing sperm whale teeth.

U.S. officials found these three tupilaks carved from sperm whale teeth in Pedro Huertas’s vehicle when he tried to cross the border in July 2021. (United States Attorney’s Office, District of Vermont)

Inuit artists and supporters are voicing concerns over the stringent export restrictions. Ruben Anton Komangapik, an Inuk hunter and artist, shared with CBC his struggles to sell his art made from whale bone due to these regulations. Theresie Tungilik, an Inuk artist and president of CARFAC, is advocating for changes to the U.S. Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), to aid Inuit artists in selling their work in the American market.

Art dealers acknowledge the need for restrictions but lament the challenges they pose. John Houston, an Arctic filmmaker and owner of Houston North Gallery, told CBC, “If someone says, ‘Oh wow, I’m going to carve a whole lot of walrus ivory, which means I’m going to go and kill a whole ton of walrus,’ — well, we don’t want that.”

The case against Huertas concluded with him pleading guilty to a misdemeanor charge of knowingly importing endangered species parts into the U.S. He was ordered to pay a $50,000 fine and forfeit the four ivory carvings. Meanwhile, Matthew Namour, the owner of Images Boréales, and his employee, Imene Mansour, are scheduled to appear in a Montreal courtroom on Dec. 4 to face charges under the Wild Animal and Plant Protection and Regulation of International and Interprovincial Trade Act.