May 7, 2009

Ebay is saving the looted antiquities market

Posted at 12:15 pm in Similar cases

Following on from the fact that Ebay was a major trader in looted artefacts a few years ago, in a strange twist, it seems that the vast numbers of forgeries on ebay is actually killing off the market in looted antiquities.


eBay is saving archeology by killing the antiquities market
How could a service that makes it easier to move looted material cut down on the looting? By making forgeries even easier to move.
By John Timmer | Last updated May 5, 2009 8:44 PM CT

By any reasonable analysis, eBay should have been a nightmare for archaeologists, allowing looted goods a new outlet, one that eliminated any cloak-and-dagger aspects of the illicit trade in antiquities by allowing the trade to flourish in plain sight, hidden by the anonymity of users’ accounts and the sheer volume of goods changing hands. But, according to at least one archaeologist who specializes in the civilizations of pre-Columbian South America, that hasn’t been the case at all. Instead, by swamping the market with fakes, eBay has made forgery a far more lucrative business, and destroyed the economics of looting.

That argument, made by Charles Stanish, a professor of anthropology at UCLA, appears in an open access article in the journal Archaeology. In a nod to one of my favorite movies, Stanish subtitles his article, “Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love eBay.” Despite the journal it appears in, the discussion is primarily one of economics.

At the root of developments is the fact that the people who did the actual looting were, apparently, not paid all that well. The money in antiquities smuggling, at least according to Stanish, went to the middlemen, the ones that forged the papers, got things past customs, etc. Looting is also a high-risk activity, even in cases where law enforcement is lax, given that there’s no guarantee of finding suitably intact materials.

Of course, even a risky job at bad pay is better than nothing, but eBay has provided a viable alternative. Small local workshops had developed around a lot of the tourist destinations associated with archeological sites, selling wares meant to evoke the past culture under varying degrees of pretense. With eBay, those shops can go global, which has greatly expanded their market, and hence their ability to employ erstwhile looters in a low-risk activity.

Stanish says that it’s easy to recognize a lot of this material as fake, even at eBay resolution, but the proliferation of workshops has set off a bit of a Darwinian competition: those that can make better fakes are going upmarket, and the best are now producing material that will baffle anyone without access to sophisticated testing equipment. Although that’s causing its own problems—Stanish says the high-end stuff is showing up in museums and being used to train academics—it’s also had the side effect of killing the trade in expensive antiquities. It’s just not worth spending a small fortune on something that now has a high probability of being a fake.

It’s a great read, and one that’s difficult to get through without finding yourself rooting for the forgers.

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