Thursday, April 23, 2009

EBay: A Solution to the Illicit Antiquities Trade?

A story from the latest Archaeology Magazine (C. Stanish, "Forging Ahead. Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love eBay," Archaeology Magazine 62.3 (May/June 2009)) has been the subject of some blog discussions lately, e.g.:

Larry Rothfield, "eBay Reduces Looting -- Maybe," The Punching Bag (21 April

Derek Finchman, "'What Fools the Curator Also Fools the Collector'," Illicit Cultural
(21 April 2009)

Stanish argues that eBay has been flooded with fake antiquities, ultimately making looting less profitable as the prevalence of fakes drives prices down. Like Larry Rothfield, I think the overall point of the article is persuasive, but I do find parts of it too simplistic.

Undeniably, the rise of the internet and online sales platforms like eBay made looting a more profitable enterprise by allowing the potential for finders and middlemen to dispose of their finds directly, rather than searching for a dealer. Additionally, internet sales widened the customer base for antiquities, making looting a more lucrative venture. One good reference, available online, is C. Chippindale and D.W.J. Gill, "Online Auctions: A New Venue for the Antiquities Market," Culture Without Context 9 (Autumn 2001)).

While eBay may now be flooded with fakes, I am not convinced this alone diminishes the profitability of illicit antiquities and thus also the incentive to loot. As Rothfield points out, as long as the customer base remains wide (and I would add indiscriminate), there will be a demand for loot and, consequently, an impetus to produce fakes. Obviously, the fact that fakes appear over and over again on eBay means that customers are buying them alongside the genuine artifacts that are sold on eBay.

Ancient coins - the class of ancient objects examined on this blog - are commonly sold on eBay along with fake ancient coins. The volume of recently surfaced genuine ancient coins remains high, and eBay is a primary venue for the mass disposal of "low quality" coins that mid-range and upper-range dealers do not wish to purchase from suppliers. The prevalence of fake ancient coins has indeed led many collectors to abandon eBay, and much (if not most) of the individual ancient coin transactions have moved to other online venues such as VCoins, which presently hosts the inventories from about 140 ancient coin dealers. Here fakes are much less common than they are on eBay, but "fresh" material still shows up in some inventories as do the bulk lots from Balkan countries. It seems to me, at least in regard to the ancient coin trade, that fakes on eBay are not curbing the demand for new material to any significant degree. It is easy enough for dealers who do not knowingly deal in fakes to organize and find an alternative online sales platform as ancient coin dealers have done with VCoins.

What I do find interesting, however, is the intrinsic connection between looters/suppliers and fakes. Several times it has been demonstrated that suppliers who systematically loot to fill market demand are often times the same people who make forgeries and introduce them into the market. For example, a major sting in Bulgaria last year led to the seizure of c. 2,800 authentic ancient coins, a complete bronze chariot, a number of other antiquities, and also dies for making fake ancient coins. A move against looters in Sicily in 2007 also revealed material for making coin forgeries (discussed by D.W.J. Gill, "Operation Ghelas: Some Implications for Coin Collectors," Cultural Heritage in Danger (29 January 2008)). Some of the forgeries that have entered the market in recent years have been very sophisticated and fooled top experts in both academia and the trade. Such forgeries have appeared, with some frequency, in major auction catalogues and are sometimes discovered before the end of the sale and removed.

Just as the organized commercial interest does not wish address the looting issue in a proactive fashion, many dealers also shy away from discussion of the number or role of forgeries in the marketplace and one can easily find instances where collector-operated online forums devoted to the discussion of ancient coin forgeries are virulently condemned or simply dismissed by certain dealers who feel that a dialogue about forgeries is a direct attack on their practices. But certainly few would seriously suggest that most dealers would knowingly deal in forgeries.

In any case, there is a clear connection between the indiscriminate sourcing of fresh material for the market and the appearance of forgeries, which can easily make their way into the inventories of respected auction houses and dealerships as looters and middlemen are increasingly peppering the market with sophisticated forgeries at the same time they are selling genuine loot.

After the lecture I gave last week in Frankfurt to a local collectors society, over dinner we actually discussed the connection between the indiscriminate market demand and the increasing problem of forgeries. This is yet another reason why collectors, archaeologists, and conservationists have a common cause in demanding more transparency from dealers and suppliers. Loot and forgeries are often coming from the same sources and if you diminish the looting problem you also diminish the forgery problem. Interestingly, one collector on the Moneta-L forum remarked a few weeks ago that naturally most dealers will not address the looting and forgery problem in the same way non-dealers would (i.e. academics/archaeologists and collectors).

Thanks are due to S. Rosenblum who suggested this story be covered on Numismatics and Archaeology.