Archaeological looting reduced by eBay effect

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA – Step aside, Indiana Jones: the rise of eBay means nobody’s interested in looting antiquities any more.

When eBay launched in 1995, UCLA archaeologist Charles “Chip” Stanish felt his heart sink. He feared the online auction house would bolster the trade in looted antiquities. But now, having tracked the trade on eBay for nine years, he says that just the opposite has happened.

By improving access to a worldwide market, he says, eBay has actually created a vast market for copies of antiquities. Whole villages have packed in the looting business as unprofitable, he says, and turned to wholesale production of fakes.

“For most of us, the Web has forever distorted the antiquities trafficking market in a positive way,” Stanish said. “Chinese, Bulgarian, Egyptian, Peruvian and Mexican workshops are now producing fakes at a frenetic pace.”

When he first started tracking eBay’s sales of antiquities, Stanish focused mainly on South American antiquities. At the time, the ratio of real artifacts to fakes was about 50:50. About 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.

He estimates that about 30 percent of “antiquities” currently for sale on eBay are obvious fakes, and another five percent or so are genuine treasure. The rest, he says, he would have to examine himself to be sure.

“People who used to make a few dollars selling a looted artifact 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.”

Stanish’s research is published in in the May/June issue of Archaeology.

* eBay has announced plans to close its Vancouver, Canada facility – which employs approximately 700 customer service agents – by the end of September. The company says it plans to increase the number of employees at its Salt Lake City facility, which currently employs more than 900 customer service agents, and at certain other facilities globally.