How auction site inadvertently spurred sale of fake antiques

May 5th, 2009 - 7:11 pm ICT by IANS  

Washington, May 5 (IANS) Online auction site eBay, which was launched more than a decade ago, had prompted fears that the site would spur plunder of genuine artefacts and antiques, but the reverse has happened.
Indeed, eBay has drastically altered the transporting and selling of illegal artefacts, writes Charles ‘Chip’ Stanish, one of the world’s foremost authorities in antiques, but not in the way he and other archaeologists had feared.

Actually, eBay unwittingly created a vast market for copies of antiquities, diverting whole villages from looting to producing fake artefacts, said Stanish, professor at the University of California-Los Angeles (UCLA), who heads its Cotsen Institute of Archaeology.

“For most of us, the web has forever distorted the antiquities trafficking market in a positive way,” Stanish says.

Looting, which is illegal, is widely recognised as destructive to cultural heritage because it can remove from public ownership tangible links to a people’s past.

Besides, looting is perceived as the enemy of scholarship because it typically is done without regard to any appropriate methods that allow scientists to date objects and to place them in a larger, more meaningful context.

Stanish has been tracking objects billed as antiquities on eBay for more than nine years. “Chinese, Bulgarian, Egyptian, Peruvian and Mexican workshops are now producing fakes at a frenetic pace,” he writes.

His conclusions also are substantiated by experiences with US customs, which occasionally asks him to authenticate objects. While his background is in South American archaeology, he has tracked eBay listings of antiquities from many cultures.

When he first started tracking eBay’s sales of antiquities, Stanish focused mainly on objects related to his field. At the time, the ratio of real artefacts to fakes was about 50-50, he estimated.

Five years later, 95 percent were fakes. Now, he admits, he can’t always tell, because the quality of the fakes has improved so much.

“People who used to make a few dollars selling a looted artefact to a middleman in their village can now produce their own ‘almost-as-good-as-old’ objects and go directly to a person in a nearby town who has an eBay account,” he said.

“They will receive the same amount or even more than they could have received for actual antiquities.”

So far, authentication techniques have struggled to keep abreast of increasingly sophisticated fakes, Stanish said.

Thanks to laser technology and chemical processes for forming antique-appearing patinas, stone and metal, reproductions are “almost impossible” to authenticate using today’s technology, Stanish writes.

However, the prospect of authentication techniques eventually catching up with today’s fakes is also having a chilling effect on the market for antiquities by dramatically adding to the risk of illicit, high-end trafficking, said a UCLA release.

These findings were published in the current issue of Archaeology.

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