EBay and the Illegal Looting of Antiquities

Archaeologists worry a lot about looting. Artifacts stolen from historical sites fetch high prices on the black market, which gives looters strong incentives to steal these items.

The emergence of eBay, therefore, was a nightmare for those who hated looting. Reducing transaction costs and making the market more liquid would certainly lead to more looting. EBay almost certainly had that effect in other markets, I suspect, like baseball cards and Beanie Babies.

So of course it would happen in antiquities as well, wouldn’t it?

Apparently, eBay had exactly the opposite effect on looting. It seems to have reduced it, or at least that is what this fascinating article from Archeology argues. The reason: whatever impact eBay had on the market for antiquities, it had an even bigger impact on the market for forged antiquities! The crush of faked artifacts had a sort of “lemons” effect on the illegal antiquities trade, with low-quality items driving out high-quality items. In addition, the bigger market gave forgers a stronger incentive to invest in high-quality fakes, to the point where now experts can have a hard time identifying the fakes. For instance, the author of the Archeology piece, Charles Stanish, writes:

In an antiquities store in La Paz, I recently saw about four shelves of supposed Tiwanaku (ca. A.D. 400-1000) pottery. I told the owner that most were fakes and she became irritated and called me a liar. So I simply touched one at a time, saying “fake,” “real,” “real from Tiwanaku,” “fake,” “fake made by Eugenio in Fuerabamba,” and so forth. She paused for a moment, pulled one down that I said was real, and told me that it was also a fake. I congratulated her on the fact that her fakes were getting better and she just smiled. My mistake is an instance of what San Francisco State University archaeologist Karen Olsen Bruhns has identified as a very real problem — the experts who study the objects are sometimes being trained on fakes. As a result, they may authenticate pieces that are not real.

Even if you are not interested in antiquities, I suspect you will find this piece fascinating reading.

(Hat tip: Larry Rothfield, who has a new book entitled The Rape of Mesopotamia: Behind the Looting of the Iraq Museum)


Who cares if it is fake if you can't tell the difference?



The museum endowment paying $15,000 for a 500a.d. pottery bowl that was realy made last year and only worth the $150 of materials and labor put into it by the forger. It also distorts historical checking of say carbon dating.

I remember some historian interested in Roman era pottery writing about finding similar pottery pieces in a excavation in London to pieces from one somewhere in Italy- down to even the way a handle to jug joint was formed. His premise was that, while he couldn't prove it, that the same person had formed both handles.

Watch the "Antiques Roadshow" sometimes and you will see why people want to forge pots, vases, etc when you see a vase valued at $30,000 to $50,000. And this for a piece less than 150 years old...


what?!- you mean that tuttenkhamen gold shroud i just bought for $129.99 is fake?- o wait... anybody want a used but authentic tuttenkhamen solid gold shroud?- bidding starts at 130


I remember reading someone suggesting (it may have been on this site) that the most cost-effective solution for African nations (and activist groups) interested in saving rhinos and elephants from poaching would be to invest in mass producing high-quality fake ivory.


Even 3 year olds prefer items that are authentic to perfect duplicates of those items. This seems to be a natural instinct.

See Hood & Bloom (2008):


As an archaeologist (although I don't do artefacts, I do tephrochronology), I have to agree with #2 when he/she mentions the dating. Although radiocarbon dating is unlikely in the case of an artefact (can only be done on things with preserved organic matter, like bones, plants, seeds, etc), there are a number of other interesting things that could be done with it. It could be dated in other ways, it could have its material and glazing analysed to reveal its origins and manufacture, and any other residue, chemical or organic, could be analysed to determine use and place within the economy or spiritual life of the people who made it.

Essentially, the difference between a good forgery and the real thing is the difference between whether you just want a nice piece of art with no meaning behind it beyond evidence of a culture that promotes forgery, or whether you are genuinely interested in the context of the past lives that created an item.

If you do just want it for the art, though, then please do buy the forgeries, so we can get the real things into our labs!



That's kind of the EBay problem writ large, no?


Then why can't I find a nice fake Louis XV cartel?


In fact I was told that Ebay was created because the founders wife collected these plastic animals that spit out the PEZ bonbons. I dont know if you get them in the US.

Larry Rothfield

Who cares if it is fake if you can't tell the difference? The answer is, people who care about the authenticity of an item. My question for the economists is whether the lemons effect applies ceteris paribus here, where we are not dealing with high/low quality. The distinction real/fake is not mappable onto the distinction high quality/low quality goods: the real thing is a noncomparable good for those who care. It is noncomparable both in its raw material (the artifact in the ground vs. the clay and straw and even ancient mold the forger uses) and in the activities which produced it (ancient practices both material and symbolic for the real thing vs. very different market-oriented practices for the fake).

Collectors who care about authenticity are not going to be driven out of the market, but will look for authenticating information, just as they once did. The value of that information and therefore of well-provenanced items will skyrocket (note that an authenticated Mesopotamian figurine sold for $57 million, the highest price ever paid). Will such high prices not lead dealers to continue to pay looters to dig in search of the one masterpiece? I think the answer is yes.


and by

Is it an argument for the platonic ideal? If the fake is indestinguishable from the real thing does that mean plato was right and there is some super ideal pot that they were both reflections of? And is Ebay the shadow on the wall that we can all look for our ideal items on it is made of electricity and lights after all.

Karl Siegemund

The main problem with fakes is that the really good ones are not identical clones of an original, but are by itself original variations of a theme found on archaeologic sites. And because they have an individual expression, and the individuum in question has not lived 2500 years ago, but is still alive and forging, it slightly distorts our view to the 2500 year old ancestors, opening possibilities for misinterpretations, wrong conclusions and ignorance.

Eric M. Jones

One of the problems in archeology is that ancient cultures ALSO collected antiquities. Some of them are fakes too. So if a 2000-year-old archeological dig that turns up what appears to be pieces a Minoan pot, you have to remember that it can be just as fake as one made yesterday. The Greeks and Romans were avid collectors of even older antiquities....fakes were abundant.

Handcrafting fake Native American handicrafts has always been a problem. I met a (non-Native-American) lady who sold some mocassins she made, then found them in a Canadian museum displayed as real artifacts.

One knew the end had come for US Steel when they were buying Asian steel and rebranding it.

The Navajo make real handicrafts, but they also have been known to sell non-Navajo fakes under their own labels. A real puzzle.

I once worked for a German company that bought our US-made optical devices but insisted that they be marked "Made In Germany". Several months later they discontinued US-manufactured devices because "They were now making them in Germany." They smiled as they handed me a device made in the US shops marked, as they had ordered, "made in Germany". Oops....



platonic ideal?


"I was told that Ebay was created because the founders wife collected these plastic animals that spit out the PEZ bonbons. I dont know if you get them in the US."

In the US we have PEZ, but our bon bons have ice cream.


(Bonbon is French (and any number of other romantic languages) for Candy.)