On New Year’s Eve, the last day in office for Gov. Susana Martinez, employees of the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs went to the governor’s mansion to inventory paintings and other items from state museum collections that had been placed on exhibit there.
There was a missing item: a squash blossom necklace, the department confirmed Wednesday.
Department records show Martinez received the necklace as a gift in 2011, and it was then transferred to the Museum of New Mexico, said Debra Garcia y Griego, named by the new governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham, to head the agency.
“This practice is customary,” Garcia y Griego wrote in an email.
But, she said, Martinez is now claiming the necklace was a personal gift and that its transfer to the Museum of New Mexico by an employee in the Governor’s Office was an error and was done so without legal authority.
Efforts to reach Martinez for comment were unsuccessful.
Under the state Gift Act, government officials are prohibited in some circumstances from accepting gifts. For example, an official cannot accept a gift with a value of more than $250 from a party that will be substantially affected by an act of that official.
No value for the necklace was available, Garcia y Griego said, adding the Museum of New Mexico doesn’t require appraisals of donated items.
Native American-made squash blossom necklaces can vary in value from hundreds of dollars to many thousands of dollars, depending upon such factors as the maker, the age of the necklace and the materials used.
The traditional squash blossom necklace has silver beads that look like they are blooming and an inverted crescent pendant in the center. The necklaces can have inlays of turquoise or other stones.
The squash blossom necklace given to Martinez features turquoise stones set in silver zia symbols and a pendant with a turquoise stone shaped like the state of New Mexico.
Martinez received the necklace the same year she signed a law designating the Native American squash blossom necklace as the official necklace of New Mexico. It wasn’t immediately known if the necklace was given in connection with Martinez signing the law.
Garcia y Griego identified the donor as Ronald Beserra.
Mary Kershaw, director of the New Mexico Museum of Art, said in an email that officials are looking into the ownership of the necklace. “Once that’s been determined, then we’ll proceed accordingly,” she said.
She didn’t say what options might be available to recover the necklace or its value.
The Department of Cultural Affairs historically has worked with governors to select items from museum collections for placement in the governor’s mansion during their terms in office. The practice allows a governor to pick pieces suited to his or her tastes in art.
Garcia y Griego said department records show that soon after Martinez received the squash blossom necklace, an employee in the Governor’s Office initiated the process of transferring the gift to the Museum of New Mexico. The transfer was completed that year, she said.
When they were unable to locate the necklace on New Year’s Eve, staff members of the Department of Cultural Affairs notified Veronica Gonzales, who was Martinez’s appointee to head the agency and also was on her last day in office.
Gonzales “immediately reached out to the then Governor’s Office,” Garcia y Griego said in her email. “The response indicated that the necklace was personally gifted to the former Governor. Any transfer of it was done erroneously and without legal/designed authority.”
This isn’t the first time an ownership dispute has arisen because of items taken by a governor.
In 1971, Gov. Bruce King said his predecessor, David Cargo, had taken fragments of rocks gathered by the first men to walk on the moon and given to the state. Cargo later presented the rock fragments to the Museum of New Mexico.