Opinion

Felix Salmon

The antiquities-on-eBay debate

By Felix Salmon
September 8, 2009

Do you remember Charles Stanish’s article about how eBay was great for antiquities because it meant that there were so many fakes around, it wasn’t worth plundering actual sites any more? Well, Matt Palmquist wrote it up for the rather fabulous Miller-McCune magazine, and now, if you scroll down to the bottom of their latest letters page, you’ll find a strong rebuttal from one Bill Stelzer, of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Anybody care to adjudicate?

Update: Stanish comments, at length, below.

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Over twenty years ago now, when I was a brash 30 year old curator at Chicago’s Field Musuem, one of my bosses asked me to help a friend authenticate an object from Peru that she had acquired decades earlier. The wealthy patron pulled out a comically bad piece of tourist art. I pretended to be impressed and carefully studied it before I proffered my opinion that it was a “fine piece of ethnographic art, manufactured sometime in the mid 20th century”. She replied that I was a pathetic and foolish young man who clearly was inept in such matters. I calmly told her that she was not the first woman to call me pathetic and inept, and that I indeed would very much like to hear her story.
Apparently, in the early 60s she was permitted, for one dollar, to excavate at Machu Picchu. After 30 minutes she discovered in the ground what everyone present agreed was the find of the decade. Agitated, but still honoring his word, the owner of the land allowed her to keep the piece for the original price. Within a day, strangers were coming up to her to congratulate her–the word was out that this gringa found this incredible piece. She soon became victim of simple but ingenious fraud and ended up paying over $400 for a COA and export papers for this piece of junk. There was nothing on the planet that could have convinced her that she had been duped.
Pride among collectors of antiquities is a strange thing. It falls in the realm of what evolutionary psychologists call “irrational behavior” that overrides common sense. I recall the Treasury agent who called me back to be sure that my evaluation (fake) of pieces confiscated at O’Hare was indeed correct. He said that when he told the smuggler the “good” news (that he was off the hook on a felony charge), the man became enraged and called me an idiot. The collector apparently preferred a fine of $10,000 and loss of his passport rather than be told that he had been made into a fool by an uneducated peasant in some far away village. I have countless more stories too numerous to tell. They all seem to center on the two sins of avarice and pride.
Mr. Stelzer claims that the “antiquities” on eBay are fairly clean and most of the pieces are authentic. I suspect that if he posted this on the collector’s Yahoo discussion group “ancientartifacts” he would be met with not a small amount of derision. Some recent posts:

“All the things on offer from both sellers are fakes. As well as 
everything on offer from their other IDs on eBay.” 

Bron” <mnestic2001@yahoo.com posted Sunday, March 1, 2009 10:27 AM

“The base estimate for dishonesty in the field of Chinese antiques in normally 95% (fake/dishonest).
Finding a good source is very important unless you use extreme care. I would never purchase piece direct from China either.”
Michael Bányai posted Sep 5, 2009

“There is almost zero chance of buying a good quality genuine antiquity on ebay. Even many of the big gallery dealers in China have invested serious money in developing faking techniques that can fool most of the scientific testing methods available. They then mix these “superfakes” in with their genuine stock.”
Graham R. ngweilo” posted Sep 5, 2009 12:36 AM

I have, in fact, several thousand similar posts collected in my email box. Knowledgeable collectors complain about fakes from all parts of the world. I am actually sympathetic to the folks who run eBay. There is no way that they can possibly police their auction sites. When the pressure from the collectors groups gets intense, they can eliminate the obvious crooks. They did remove about 50-75 dealers a few months ago, but most are back with different ID’s. The internet is simply too vast to control and no reasonable person would hold eBay officials responsible. The extremely lucrative business of making fakes is far too powerful to be contained by a handful of workers monitoring websites.
Mr. Stelzer apparently collects Neolithic points on eBay. Well, my opinion, based upon 35 years of field experience handling hundreds of thousands of ancient artifacts, is that these “arrowheads” are obvious fakes. The pictures of these points and the fact that the same ones are sold on different sites with different date attributions is proof enough. But the economics of the enterprise is equally strong evidence. I calculate that a flint knapper in Algeria or Tunisia or wherever, working slowly for seven hours a day for 10 months a year, and earning just 15 cents per point, would make double or triple the average per capita income of scores of countries in the developing world, including their own. It just is not worth scouring the desert for these things when you can crank out hundreds by the week, guaranteed to go directly to the dealer who pays you on a timely basis.
I am sure that Mr. Stelzer thinks that I am foolish, pathetic, and inept. Of course, I am a professional archaeologist who despises looters, dealers and collectors of antiquities. Is it possible that I am making all of this up just to ruin the business? Why would I publish my article and alert people to the fakes if they really do prevent looting? It seems logical that my true hidden agenda is really to convince folks that the real artifacts online are actually fakes. Maybe the Mr. Stelzer’s of the world are indeed right. Better ignore this pathetically inept professor folks and just keep buying, keep buying those curiously cheap but precious ancient artifacts.…..

Charles Stanish
Professor, Dept. of Anthropology
Director, Cotsen Institute of Archaeology
UCLA

Posted by stanish | Report as abusive
 

I have no horse to flog in this debate, but IMHO Prof. Stanish is only offering hear-say or circumstantial evidence. His personal anecdote above, however, interesting, dates from the 1960s, well before eBay. The kind of genuine evidence which would seem to settle the matter, is: taking a sample of eBay antiquities articles sold as “authentic” and evaluating their authenticity. And then, if you were interested to see how eBay compares to other methods of retail (such as antiquities dealers with physical stores), use the same sampling and testing technique.

Posted by a | Report as abusive
 

Professor Stanish is not offering “hearsay” but an opinion, the opinion of an archaeologist who has handled hundrds of thousands of ancient artefacts from secure contexts. Take it or leave it. I cannot see why anyone except eBay would want to do the kind of survey of eBay’s “antiquities” (quite apart from who would finance it). The anecdote by the way I think was to make a point about the arrogance of those who think they “know better” rather than what is on eBay today. I personally think he is right there are a lot of people out there buying what they fondly imagine are genuine looted archaeological finds who have not the foggiest idea of what the genuine item looks like, and they are being taken for a ride. I suppose your reaction to that would depend on whether you think buying looted archaeological artefacts is a decent thing to do or not…

Paul Barford
Archaeologist

 

Those who follow these debates have enjoyed a series of responses to Prof. Stanish’s terrific initial article. I don’t doubt that many collectors are buying fakes. But I wonder at the efficacy of the typical archaeologist position—as proposed by Prof. Stanish and Mr. Barford here. Calling their actions an “irrational behavior” may be true enough, but is it wise?

As a lawyer, trying to craft a legal solution to these problems given the limits of funding and law enforcement resources is only made more difficult when partisans shout across the divide like this. I don’t dispute there are fakes, or that individuals shouldn’t perhaps collect many of the objects they collect. But we will never eradicate the desire of collectors to collect. Are there compromise positions which archaeologists may adopt that would shift this desire in helpful directions? Yes, but insulting those with a different view of material cultural heritage doesn’t get us any closer to any pragmatic solutions.

 

Mr Fincham, I really do not think anyone here was “insulting” anyone.

Mr Salmon asked about the arrowhead collector’s statement. I thought *that* was extremely insulting in tone.

Mr. Stelzer is obviously looking at the Stanish article from the point of view of the collector of prehistoric arrowheads bought on ebay. The argument he constructs is a straw man one though.

The point originally being made by Prof. Stanish surely was not that there are never any real genuine looted ancient objects on eBay, but that the scale of sales of such items there was not as great as some people initially feared would be the case. http://www.archaeology.org/0905/etc/insi der.html So buying an arrowhead that may or may not be genuine proves nothing. I think we’d all admit that on sites like eBay there are a lot of real archaeological objects whose presence there raises all sorts of questions.

In any case we really have Mr Steizer’s own judgement whether a two dollar arrowhead from eBay really was as ancient as he believes it to be. I’ll bet that for his two dollars he did not receive verifiable documentation of where it actually came from and how it ended up on eBay. Without that, it could then have come from anywhere.

Paul Barford

 

Hi Charles,
the:
…”base estimate for dishonesty in the field of Chinese antiques in normally 95% (fake/dishonest). Finding a good source is very important unless you use extreme care. I would never purchase piece direct from China either”
…quote was mine rather than Michael’s but I can strengthen your premise rather more.

That “95% dishonest” figure is often given by collectors of Chinese antiquties for the general market, i.e stumbling off the road into a new shop.
Off e-bay the figure for dishonesty is put at more like 99%.
That said I have a friend who was amongst other things a paleobiologist and once curator of Asian Art at an American museum and he seemed to think that much of the north African point he has were legit (ableit some rechipping). I dunno. He did not specify they were from e-bay! He seemed to think North American flint was more dubious. I’ll put that out there, as it is not my niche.

Back to E-bay.
A well known collector, the late John Piscopo, said this of e-bay (which I like).
“E-bay is a sewer. You do not go looking for diamonds in a sewer. Of course there may well be some diamonds in there, but if you reach in you normally come out with a handful of something else”.

About collectors irrational behaviour, and pride, Oh Yes, I have seen it.
They do not appreciate having tourist fakes pointed out as tourist fakes. People have thousands of items and invested so much emotionally they will deny it to the death.
I tend to think these same enthusiasts must not actually visit museums or lift a text book on the culture they claim to adore.
The collecting community is made up of all sorts of people.
Just like humanity in general.

Posted by Kenneth Blair | Report as abusive
 

It is nice to have a debate on this which I think is badly needed. Full disclosure for me is that I think Paul Barford is brilliant. I have followed his posts on Yahoo and, as professional archaeologists, we basically agree on all the key points. I wish I had his energy and admire his work.
The term “irrational” is not intended to be insulting, quite the contrary. It is a common term in behavioral economics and evolutionary psychology to point out that we humans (all of us) rarely following classic economic theory in our actual behavior. It is the deviations from that behavior that so interesting, and collecting antiquities represents one of the best examples.
Mr. Fincham asks for compromise positions. I believe there are some, though the radical folks on each side tend to dominate the debate. Any takers for compromise ideas?
Charles Stanish

Posted by stanish | Report as abusive
 

I agree that the vast majority of artifacts on ebay, including Chinese, are fake. However there are some authentic gems to be found, and a handful of sellers in the UK that I know, that never sell fakes on ebay or their websites. You need experience to find these…

Eftis Paraskevaides

eftis.blogspot.com

 

As a seller on Ebay -the largest supermarket on this planet- I’ve been trying to warn buyers of the dangers of these fakes found on Ebay and the internet. So far, I have been disheartened by the response of buyers and Ebay itself which does a half heartened attempt to put a stop to these ripoffs which hurt consumers as well as manufacturers.
Over the past few years I’ve managed to compile a 2 part Dictionary of Fakes which people can check out and become aware of the fakes on the Internet. A few votes on these guides would help get the word out to more people, and possibly put a dent into the shysters who commit cyberspace robbery on unsuspecting consumers. See my guides and PLEASE VOTE! Only we can put a stop to this. See:

http://reviews.ebay.com/DICTIONARY-OF-FR AUDS-amp-FAKES-ON-EBAY-Part-1-A-thru-D_W 0QQugidZ100000000​05970319

and

http://reviews.ebay.com/DICTIONARY-OF-FR AUDS-amp-COUNTERFEITS-PART-2-E-THRU-Z_W0 QQugidZ100000000​08141437

 

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