09 May 2009

EBay and the economics of fake artifacts

Chuck Stanish has an interesting piece in this month's Archaeology on EBay and the illegal antiquities trade:
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.
I'm happy to discover a silver lining of any kind in EBay's shameful facilitation of the illegal antiquities trade. And to be honest, it's satisfying to see wealth transferred from unscrupulous, well-heeled collectors who encourage the destruction of sites to unscrupulous, needy artisans who are not destroying sites.

However, in most places it's development, not illicit pot-hunting, that constitutes the major long-term threat to the archaeological record. And here is where I see a possible wrinkle. If the success of forgery as a cottage industry encourages local people to treat the material remains of the past as a commodity that can simply be manufactured to meet outside demand, they then have little economic incentive to preserve intact archaeological sites, unless these serve some other end, such as attracting tourists or archaeologists.

Of course I don't mean to imply that forging artifacts necessarily precludes the kind of respectful stewardship of genuine past material culture that archaeologists--for a variety of motives, not all disinterested--like to see local folks exhibit. But EBay might well end up saving sites from the looter's spade only for them to be destroyed by construction backhoes.


1 comment:

  1. Nice post. I think you're right to point out that a lack of looting does not equal preservation per se: something I think we often assume.

    What Stanish doesn't get into is the issue of whether we should still be fixated on this paradigm of 'genuine' vs. 'fakes'. If it's a well-made pot that makes the collector happy, who cares if it was made yesterday? I think we need to stamp out the mentality that only genuinely old things can produce a sense of the past.