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)