Being an original artist in Mexico does not pay well. Ask a master carver why he is producing knock-offs of traditional antiquities instead of original work and he will tell you that he has a family to feed. I once asked Juan, a master carver from a town near Merida to carve me a special toad implanted with jade I had found at Tonina. He was stunned by the proposition. Nobody had ever asked him to carve an original piece. He did not even know how much to charge.
We spent an afternoon with a family of carvers near Coba one day chatting about the craft trade. They lamented that even doing quality reproduction of antiquities was time consuming and since they could not price themselves out of the marketplace regardless of how much time they spent on an item they could only get so much money for it. The extra time spent on their carvings was done out of personal pride and excellence in workmanship. They overproduce their work and take the loss to be competitive with the mass produced stuff.
Original items can be found in every craft genre. Sometimes the artists loves an original piece so much they will make a number of similar items, all different but with the same style. In some cases an original item sparks another then another then a whole village is making the thing.
Some items sold in craft stores are not actually arts or crafts at all but actual clothing, household items or religious artifacts created for traditional Mayan ceremonies. Asked how Mayan ceremonial gear ends up in a collector’s store is easy, missionaries. You see, as the missionaries travel from village to village they educate the Maya on how evil their traditions are and that they must repent. Repenting means getting rid of all of their traditional Mayan beliefs. This includes any ceremonial artifacts and even the clothing they wear. This practice is going on as you read this.
In some circumstances entire Mayan communities are forced to move and relocate to a different area. Sometimes they do not want to bring all their things with them so they sell some of their belongings.
Mayan people experiencing dire economical circumstances are forced into selling valuable artifacts to simply survive. These artifacts could be huipils, masks, incense altars or anything the family treasured.
Like other families, when the elderly pass away, some things lose there meaning and hold no value to the new owners. In a society encroaching more and more towards color TV and cell phones having a ceremonial huipil or jaguar mask is slowly losing its appeal.
Less and less authentic Mayan traditional artifacts are available now and what is left is steadily rising in price. There are so many imitations now that one does need to be wary about who you are buying from and what the real story is.