Wednesday, May 06, 2009

Score another one for the Internet...

E-bay and free markets have reduced trafficking in ancient artifacts looted from illegal digs.
Back in the pre-eBay days, the cost of acquiring and selling an antiquity was high. The actual looter was usually paid little, but various middlemen down the line added huge costs. During my 25 years of working in the Andes, I have often seen this dynamic at work. In years past, transporting an object was a big expense, even for portable artifacts, and the potential for arrest added to the total cost of doing business. In addition, the expense of authentication, conservation, and occasional restoration of the pieces, made buying and selling quality antiquities a wealthy person's vice.
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.
How is it possible? The short answer is that many of the primary "producers" of the objects have shifted from looting sites to faking antiquities. I've been tracking eBay antiquities for years now, and from what I can tell, this shift began around 2000, about five years after eBay was established. It is true that fakes have been around for centuries. In 1886, the celebrated Smithsonian archaeologist W. H. Holmes described countless bogus antiquities in Mexico. A few decades later, Egyptologist T. G. Wakeling noted that many ancient Egyptian artifacts were, in fact, fakes. In the 19th century, American and European museums purchased large numbers of "Etruscan" ceramic vessels and sarcophagi that came straight from the kilns of rural Italian farmers. But these were usually the really good fakes, labor-intensive pieces that required lots of work and skill. Today, every grade and kind of antiquity is being mass-produced and sold in quantities too large to imagine.
In the pre-Internet days, no one thought that so many people would be willing to put down good money for a low-end piece of tourist art. 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 vendor account. They will receive the same amount or even more than they could have received for actual antiquities. I have visited a number of these workshops in Peru and Bolivia. Using local materials and drawing on their cultural knowledge, small manufacturers can produce pieces that are, in some cases, remarkably accurate reproductions of actual artifacts. The really smart ones do not reproduce pieces at all but create an ever-so-slightly modified version of real artifacts that have the look and feel of an authentic ancient object. Perhaps the ultimate achievement is the work of the famous Brigido Lara, who created tens of thousands of fakes in the 1950s and '60s, practically creating his own "ancient" culture in Veracruz, Mexico, in the process.

The economics of these transactions are quite simple. Because the eBay phenomenon has substantially reduced total costs by eliminating middlemen, brick-and-mortar stores, high-priced dealers, and other marginal expenses, the local eBayers and craftsmen can make more money cranking out cheap fakes than they can by spending days or weeks digging around looking for the real thing. It is true that many former and potential looters lack the skills to make their own artifacts. But the value of their illicit digging decreases every time someone buys a "genuine" Moche pot for $35, plus shipping and handling. In other words, because the low-end antiquities market has been flooded with fakes that people buy for a fraction of what a genuine object would cost, the value of the real artifacts has gone down as well, making old-fashioned looting less lucrative. The value of real antiquities is also impacted by the increased risk that the object for sale is a fake. The likelihood of reselling an authentic artifact for more money is diminished each year as more fakes are produced.
Another economic factor--risk of arrest--is also removed by eBay fakes, since you can't be arrested for importing forgeries. Should you import what you think is an illegal antiquity but it turns out to be a fake, you run little risk of prosecution. The risk from lawsuits or criminal charges is effectively removed from the sale of antiquities when they are not really antiquities, a fact that reduces the cost and risk to both buyer and seller. [More]

So the next time you get a chance to bid on the Ark of the Covenant, think twice.

Seriously, suddenly skilled artisans in far-flung villages have a market as big as the world, and fewer shady middlemen to siphon off the proceeds.  It also reasserts the value of beauty and craftsmanship over simple scarcity.

No comments: