Friday, 10 April 2009

Antiquities Market "undermined"?

Charles Stanish (director of the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology and a professor of anthropology at UCLA) recently opines (Forging Ahead, Or, how I learned to stop worrying and love eBay) that “the Web has forever distorted the antiquities trafficking market in a positive way”. He argues that the growing sophistication of forgeries and the drop in prices of antiquities on the global market brought about by internet sales is undercutting the market for real looted items which in the absence of any documentation of legitimate origins, the buyer cannot distinguish from fakes. He says "it is just conceivable that online commerce will actually put a lot of antiquities looters and traffickers out of business by the sheer volume of sales and quality of products that fool even the experts". Speaking mainly of material of South and Central American origin, he suggests 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. 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. […]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. […]It was only a matter of time before a few workshops producing the cheap fakes started turning out reproductions that can fool even supposed experts like me. A number of these workshops have swamped the higher-end market with beautiful pieces that require intensive study by specialists and high-cost tests to authenticate. This manufacturing business never could have developed on such a scale without the Internet, and these forgers have forever transformed the antiquities market into something that we could not have imagined just a decade ago.
The author suggests therefore that the days of the no-questions asked buying and selling may be numbered, as dealers will have to be able to show the origins of the artefact they are claiming is ancient in order to demonstrate to the buyer that it is not a sophisticated recent fake. Standish says:

From the professional's point of view, there are really three kinds of "antiquities" on eBay. About 30 percent are obvious fakes or tourist art that can be detected by looking at the pictures, even the fuzzy ones. [...]Another five percent or so are probably real, while the rest are in the ambiguous category of "I would have to hold it in my hand to be able to make an informed decision." This latter category has grown fast. In the first years of eBay, I observed about a 50-50 real-to-fake ratio in Andean artifacts. About five years ago, my informal assessment was that about 95 percent were obvious fakes and the rest were real or dubious. This was the period when the workshops first went into high gear; the market was flooded with low-end junk. Now, the workshops are producing much higher-quality fakes, increasing the category of ambiguous objects now available. I base these estimates not only on what I see on eBay, but also from my occasional work with U.S. Customs, in which I help authenticate objects.
What is more important for archaeology is the assessment that "the experts who study the objects are sometimes being trained on fakes", the same of course will go for the dealers on whose "reputation" and ability to separate fakes from real and potentially looted artefacts collectors pin their trust. Stanish mentions "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 Lie Became Great.

While certainly I would accept that there is abundant evidence that the majority of people buying "antiquities" through internet sales outlets seem to be uninformed and naive individuals in addition - to judge from what they bid on - apparently devoid for the most part of any sense of "style" and aesthetics enabling them to spot pieces that simply 'do not look right', I think Dr Stanish is overstating the case by suggesting that because of the number of gullible people buying forgeries, the looting problem is to some extent over. What applies to pre-Columbian antiquities coming into the USA cannot be extrapolated to the whole global market. It does not affect for example those collectors that go out and "do it themselves", like the damage caused to Europe's archaeological record by metal detectorists. I think also we should recognise that the prevalence of fakes is an indicator that the most accessible parts of the archaeological record have already had the collectable portable antiquities collected away.

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