It is now two weeks since the German branch of eBay introduced new regulations concerning the sale of archaeological artefacts. Whether or not the move is policed properly or even effective, it sends out an important message to the artefact collecting community, and one that should be heeded outside Germany.
Basically the new regulations (which also of course refer to ancient and excavated coins – they are archaeological artefacts too) state that it is forbidden to sell archaeological artefacts on German eBay unless they are accompanied by proper documentation showing the seller’s title, that the correct procedures for reporting have been followed and objects from abroad have the requisite export licence. The regulations state that these documents must be described and legibly visible in the sales offer. If the seller plays the “old European collection” gambit, they are still required to produce documentation, catalogue, letters, bills of sale (with the original price blacked out). The penalties for not complying are quite severe by eBay standards.
Both Austria and Switzerland also have similarly-worded regulations (though I am not clear when they were introduced).
This is a huge step forward towards regulating at least part of the expanding internet-based sale of minor portable antiquities (in reality potential archaeological evidence removed from the archaeological record). British Museum expert Paul Craddock famously said of the antiquities trade as a whole that most of it was in objects either stolen or fakes. Ebay is notorious among archaeologists for offering a myriad of objects of dubious and undocumented provenance, it is notorious among collectors as being a place where a multitude of fake artefacts (of varying degrees of competence and believability) are offloaded by unscrupulous sellers on unsuspecting and uninformed collectors. This new regulation will immediately sort out both problems. The only way a fake antiquity can be provided convincing documentation to be sold on eBay in accordance with the new regulations is by faking the documents too. Then the seller really cannot plead ignorance of the nature of the item (“I don’t know what this is, it was bought by my grandfather, been in the family years”) and can be prosecuted for forgery when caught. The same with illegally excavated and illegally exported artefacts and coins.
Suddenly the tables have turned, if this measure is consistently applied and policed, eBay will be come a safer and more ethical place to buy antiquities than it currently is and will become safer than many of its other on-line (and off-line) competitors. Great news for eBay, for collectors, but also the archaeological resource. This means that there will appear an incentive to supply the market with correctly provenanced artefacts, that responsible collectors will require dealers to only stock this kind of material (or their ‘reputation’ will suffer).
So when will the UK branch of eBay follow suit? Britain is one of the major hubs of the international antiquities trade, which means that it is also (to its shame) one of the major centers of the trade in tillicit (“tainted”) artefacts. All this is going on under the noses of British archaeologists who currently seem to be doing very little about it than wringing their hands and saying plaintively how awful it all is… Britain has the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003 ,* but its not used (Mackenzie and Green 2007). Every week several hundred (probably) sellers and dealers offer material from abroad which they know is tainted, because they have no export licence for them. Nothing happens to them, nobody reports them, nothing is done. So it goes on. Week after week archaeological sites in areas like the Balkans are illegally emptied so the metal objects can be bundled up into big parcels and sent off through central Europe to western collectors and dealers who snap it up eagerly and sell it on. A great deal of it passes through Germany, and much of it ends up in the UK and US, and a lot of that is sold there through eBay and other Internet auction sites.
Britain has the Portable Antiquities Scheme, and yet few archaeological artefact (even of clearly British provenance) offered on eBayUK have any mention of them having been recorded with the PAS or the Scottish Treasure Trove Unit. Let alone any items of foreign origin making any mention of an export licence or where they came from. This secrecy cannot go on, if we buy tainted food in the shop, there must be a mechanism by which the source of the contamination can be traced, why should people buy antiquities to lesser trading standards than potatoes? Perhaps eBayUK can be persuaded to pay attention to the subsection of the British “Dealing…” Act 2003 which implies that they too “deal in” these things as they make an arrangement with a third party (their sellers) to sell these tainted items. I think it is time for British archaeologists and concerned members of the public to start putting pressure on their own domestic eBay to recognize the problems and follow the excellent lead of the Germans.
Oh, the link to the British Act will not work, it's been down months... despite being referred to in a number of information resources by the British government for would-be exporters of cultural property. That is a symptom of how seriously the British DCMS seem to take this whole issue (more of that another time).
Mackenzie, Simon and Green, Penny, "Criminalising the Market in Illicit Antiquities: An Evaluation of the Dealing in Cultural Objects (Offences) Act 2003" (July 2007). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1004267