The Los Angeles Times recently reported (29 May 2009) that eBay has reduced the demand for looted antiquities. The story is based on the research of Charles Stanish (University of California) who has been studying the online trade in antiquities.

Stanish’s argument is that ‘whilst archaeologists were terrified that demand for ancient loot would explode’ following eBay’s founding (in 1995), instead it seems that ‘contemporary inhabitants of ancient lands’ have ‘learned that many online antiquities shoppers…could be fooled into buying knickknacks dressed up to look plausibly ancient’. Good for archaeology (perhaps), but less so for unsuspecting consumers–though most archaeologists might see this as some kind of divine justice.
Given the enormous numbers of antiquities listed on eBay each day–at time of writing 5,834 on eBay (UK) alone–it is tricky to see how it is possible to assess how many might be looted, given that the provenance of few is actually established and most are never studied by an expert/archaeologist first-hand. The Greenhalgh case (where the Metropolitan Police’s Art & Antiques Unit successfully prosecuted a family of forgers from Bolton) highlights how even professional museum curators find it difficult to distinguish between ancient art and contemporary facsimiles.
Even if the US trade in Mesoamerican looted artefacts has dipped, our experience as regards UK antiquities is different. Since October 2006 the British Museum’s Department of Portable Antiquities and Treasure has been monitoring eBay for the sale of antiquities, specifically unreported items of Treasure. The overall trend on eBay has been an increase in trade over this period from a monthly average of 1,275 to 4,811 for all antiquities offered for sale (though, as stated, at time of writing it is 5,834); and the monthly average of British antiquities has increased from 375 to 1,516 (today 1,871). This is not to say any of these finds are illicit or fake; but the large proportion of ‘unprovenanced’ finds undoubtedly will concern most archaeologists.
To date, 573 cases of unreported potential Treasure have been logged by the British Museum. Of these, 302 cases were followed up by questioning the vendors of these finds, and the responses are intriguing: 6% stated the sales were old finds that did not qualify under the Treasure Act, but perhaps should have been reported under (the old law) Treasure Trove; 2% stated that it was the finder’s responsibility, not theirs, to report the finds; 26% stated that the find-spot was ‘unknown’, and therefore they were uncertain whether or not the find should have been reported; 18.5% said the find was ‘foreign’, without explaining whether or not the find came legally to this country; 16.5% gave a response that was not possible to categorise, such as simply asserting that the find was ‘not Treasure’; 22% did not respond; and 9% said they would report the find.
What is readily apparent is that third parties (dealers) are acquiring potential Treasure finds without making appropriate due diligence checks, and even perhaps knowingly acquiring unreported Treasure, thus depriving museums any rights to acquire these finds for public benefit.
For this reason the British Museum has been lobbying for a change to the Treasure Act 1996 through an amendment to the Coroners and Justice Bill (currently in the Lords), which is supported by the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, to require all that come into possession of Treasure to report it. Furthermore, in Austria, Germany, and Switzerland vendors who sell antiquities on eBay are required to provide documentation regarding provenance, and there is a strong case for requiring vendors of UK antiquities to do likewise. These changes would ensure fewer fake finds are in circulation and that those that are illicit are difficult to sell on the open market.

Dr Michael Lewis MIfA FSA
Dept Portable Antiquities & Treasure
The British Museum


This opinion comes from Current Archaeology 234

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