By Melissa Merli
The state put a value of less than $300 on the pieces, making the charge a misdemeanor rather than felony.
Heap of Birds, as well as many other American Indians and artists in the community, believe the signs are fine art and should be judged according to their appraised value, which would lift the theft charge to a felony.
"We see it as pattern of behavior of treating American Indians as second-class citizens, both on this campus and in the community," said John McKinn, assistant director of American Indian Studies at the UI. "It's just another attempt to devalue American Indians and their experience. It also speaks to the lack of education we all have for what constitutes art."
Two different professional appraisers valued 12 similar Heap of Bird "Native Hosts" signs in British Columbia at $120,000, or $10,000 each. One of those appraisals, by a Canadian appraiser, was given to the Champaign County state's attorney's office.
State's Attorney Julia Rietz said the appraisal will not affect her decision related to the charge against Nepermann, a recent UI graduate. "It's not proof to me of the value of these signs," she said of the ones in Urbana.
She instead based her decision on an invoice, given her by the UI police, from the American Logo and Sign Inc. in Moore, Okla., that the signs for the Urbana public art exhibit were sold to Heap of Birds for $88.65 each. The artist had the signs manufactured at the company.
"This is the evidence that I have of the value of these signs and simply because Mr. Heap of Birds attributes a higher value to them doesn't mean I can use that as proof in court," Rietz said.
Heap of Birds said the "Native Hosts" signs are fine art and that the value of a work of art is never based on the cost of materials or the manufacturer's cost. Taken into account are many factors, among them the concept behind the work, aesthetics, the prices of previous sales of the artist's work and his or her reputation.
The pieces seem to reside in the middle of the spectrum between plain signs and fine art. I'd say the value of each sign should be somewhere between $300 and $10,000.
For more on the subject, see Anti-Illiniwek Sign Damaged.