Friday 3 October 2008

eBay: Grave looters' paradise?

Yesterday saw the end of yet another auction of a dubious portable antiquity from foreign soil. Ebay “power seller” ancient_treasures of “San Fernando Valley, L.A., United States” (actually Plamen Arsoff, Granada Hills CA 91394 USA, 35942 ratings since July 1998 ) sold two objects purporting to be pieces of ancient goldwork to eBay buyer “dianelos2” (182 ratings).

This seems to be the person who wrote to the Yahoo AncientArtifacts discussion listwhat should I do when "gold" and "found in the Balkans" appear on a listing by an eBay seller with excellent feedback, but who is also in our good dealers list? (see for example ebay items 200257535399 and 200257539769)”. [In this context this “good dealer’s list” is not one who sells artefacts of documented licit origin but of dealers merely regarded by that group as selling real archaeological artefacts taken from their context rather than fake ones].

The answer received from fellow dealer Ernie Krumbein was “Ancient Treasures is Palmen (sic) Arsoff and he is a respected dealer. I feel he has sources in the Balkans for metal detector finds but what he offers seems to be very authentic.” In the event, “Dianelos2” bought both of the gold items from the Balkans. A plain hoop ring and something a bit more characteristic.

This (details accessible under item number: 200257539769) was described by Mr Arsoff as a “Thracian gold forehead piece” and although the starting price was US $4.99, the object was sold after a week of strong bidding for US $636.99. Let us note that unlike the new regime on eBay in other countries in the US version, the seller is able to get away with a description which makes no mention of how the piece was obtained, or how it got to Los Angeles, certainly there is no mention of any accompanying export documentation. I personally find that rather odd from a dealer intent on maintaining his status as a reputable one if there HAD been some such documentation, don't you? Anyway, all that the potential buyer is told is:
Ancient Thrace, 5th - 4th c. BC. Gold forehead decoration. There is a hole at each end, through which a thread was passed, the means by which the sheet was fastened in place. Pieces of this type were designed exclusively for burial purposes. They covered either the forehead, the mouth or the chest of the dead. Measures 3.2cm wide and 15.8cm long, 5.31g. Found in the Balkans.

Found in the area of the “Balkans” occupied by "the Thracians" we presume. Basically then, somewhere in the region of modern Bulgaria. The seller admits that these items were made “exclusively for burial purposes”, so really one cannot ask for more specific indications that this has every indication of being most likely the product of grave robbing to supply the market with collectables. Is this like the several hundred other items currently being sold by this Californian dealer (many of which are of types not at all inconsistent with an origin in southeastern Europe) from “old collections” brought over to the USA with nineteenth century settlers from the Balkans? When precisely did this material reach America? Is it not the product of the looting like some of the other material sold on eBay? After all as we saw, fellow dealer Ernie Krumbein has gone on record saying “I feel he has sources in the Balkans for metal detector finds”.

Dianelos asked for opinions what is a person “to do” when "gold" and "found in the Balkans" appear on a listing by an eBay seller ? In my opinion before they even think of bidding, the responsible collector would ask them if they can actually document its licit provenance and if it seems to be the product of grave-robbing, not touch it with a bargepole and report it to eBay as yet another of those auctions that is bringing this sales portal into increasingly repute. Bidding on objects like this without asking such questions is to risk joining the ranks of the collectors who are putting money into the pockets of the looters and who must share the responsibility for its continuance.

I wonder how much of Dianelose's 637 dollars Balkan artefact hunter Teodor Grobozlodziej (or whatever his name was) got for digging the stuff out from an archaeological site?

Diadem image from the eBay page.

Vignette: from the Looting blog (Nathan Craig).


fangweilo said...

Interesting article Paul,

However I'm not sure of your point.

Is your point that the artifact hunter was exploited?
Or that no-one should buy this?
Or that the government should arrest everyone?
Or that everything should be left in the ground?

Please explain,


Paul Barford said...

> Or that no-one should buy this?<
Got it in one.

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