eBay driving world's tomb raiders out of business, says prof
Online fools' lust for forged tat stymies looters
An American archaeology prof says that a long-feared outbreak of eBay-driven tomb raiding has failed to occur. Rather, it seems that the online dross emporium - by creating a huge and profitable new market for forged antiquities - has drawn criminals and charlatans out of looting and into making crappy imitations for eBay.
"For most of us, the Web has forever distorted the antiquities trafficking market in a positive way," says Professor Charles Stanish of UCLA.
Writing in the current issue of Archaeology magazine, the prof explains that this is unexpected. When eBay first started to gain traction, he and his colleagues feared that the world's tombs, hidden temples, lost cities etc. would swiftly be stripped bare by would-be online auctioneer robbers.
Our greatest fear was that the Internet would democratize antiquities trafficking and lead to widespread looting. This seemed a logical outcome of a system in which anyone could open up an eBay site and sell artifacts dug up by locals anywhere in the world. We feared that an unorganized but massive looting campaign was about to begin, with everything from potsherds to pieces of the Great Wall on the auction block for a few dollars. But a very curious thing has happened. It appears that electronic buying and selling has actually hurt the antiquities trade.
In the old days, according to Stanish, your primary buyer of dodgy antique artifacts was wealthy and sophisticated. They knew they were buying priceless cultural treasures that strictly speaking should have been in museums - eg. they were buying illegally-handled goods - but they knew enough that they were hard to fool, and they paid top dollar.
Thus, the business of looting/tomb-raiding was worthwhile, although expensive. It was worth dodging the huge rumbling stone balls and poisoned darts, then shipping the artifacts out and getting them across the border and passing them through the hands of many crooked dealers and middlemen. You'd wind up getting a substantial sum in the end from a suspect American millionaire or jaded European aristocrat.
Not so nowadays, apparently. The arrival of millions of eBay-trawling, tat-hungry buffoons on the antiquities scene has meant that local villagers near an old temple or wherever can make far more money cranking out fake vases, sacrificial knives or whatever, than they could by going and stealing real ones out of the catacombs.
'As long as fools will buy crap on eBay, the world's treasures will be safe for posterity'
According to Stanish:
Because the eBay phenomenon has substantially reduced total costs by eliminating middlemen, brick-and-mortar stores, high-priced dealers, and other marginal expenses, the local eBayers and craftsmen can make more money cranking out cheap fakes than they can by spending days or weeks digging around looking for the real thing. It is true that many former and potential looters lack the skills to make their own artifacts. But the value of their illicit digging decreases every time someone buys a "genuine" Moche pot for $35, plus shipping and handling. In other words, because the low-end antiquities market has been flooded with fakes that people buy for a fraction of what a genuine object would cost, the value of the real artifacts has gone down as well, making old-fashioned looting less lucrative. The value of real antiquities is also impacted by the increased risk that the object for sale is a fake. The likelihood of reselling an authentic artifact for more money is diminished each year as more fakes are produced.
Even better, you can't be jailed for handling fakes the way you could for dealing in genuine antiquities. Both for buyer and seller, the market is thus much safer and cheaper, due to the very fact that everything in it is faked.
Stanish says that not only has the eBay phenomenon removed most of the actual tomb-raiders from the crooked antiquities business - so cutting off the supply of looted valuables at the source - it has also funnelled money and effort into the production of better and better fakes. Thus the traditional high-priced market for stolen treasures, among the dodgy millionaires, is also affected:
The wealthier collector who up to now has been laughing about the naive folks who buy on eBay is in for a surprise, too: those dealers that provide private sales are some of the forgers' best customers, knowingly or otherwise. In fact, the workshops reserve their "finest" pieces for collectors using the same backdoor channels as before, but now with a much higher profit margin because they are selling fakes. As a former curator myself, I know that an embarrassingly high percentage of objects in our museums are forgeries. What fools the curator also fools the collector.
When a forger can use grass from ancient middens to temper his pottery, as apparently one of Stanish's acquaintances does, even carbon-dating can be fooled. He says that it's fairly routine to include bits of genuinely old pottery in a high-end forgery, too, which means that thermoluminescence testing becomes very expensive as multiple samples are required.
So even at the top end the looters are being driven out of business by the forgers. That's why archaeologists like Stanish - and those who consider their work important - should be pleased, he says. With the destruction of the tomb-raiders' business model, the genuine artifacts will wind up adding to the sum of human knowledge in museums rather than being privately fondled by rich degenerates.
And we owe it all, according to Professor Stanish, to the innate gullibility and greed of eBay users:
What drives this new dynamic is the small fraction of people who actually believe that someone will sell you a real Moche Fineline pot for $200 (actual price: about $15,000) and have it shipped from Peru by mail without any risk. It is this money that provides the capital for the cottage industries to keep producing and fuelling the cycle of ever-increasing quality and quantity of forgeries ... I suppose if people stopped believing that they can buy a pill that will help them lose weight without dieting or exercise, then it is possible that people will stop buying fakes online, and we will return to old-fashioned looting. We just have to wait and see what surprises the Internet brings us in the future.
The prof and his colleagues would certainly seem to be pretty safe for now. You can read his whole article online here. ®