Indiana Jones and the Temple of eBay - Pacific Standard

Indiana Jones and the Temple of eBay

The digital revolution lets antiquities forgers sell their 'replicas' worldwide, unintentionally undermining the black market in looted artifacts.
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For the past couple of years, Charles "Chip" Stanish, professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has been hosting a regular, rather geeky get-together of his colleagues. "I have a couple of friends over, we get a nice bottle of Cabernet, and we plug my computer into my big-screen TV," explains the director of UCLA's Cotsen Institute of Archaeology with a sly chuckle. "Then we log on to eBay, do a search for something like 'Egyptian antiques' and just roll with laughter all night long. It is really funny."

That's because the items that pop up for sale on the Internet auction site are not exactly Caesar's toga or Cleopatra's comb. Rather, they are a staggering collection of fakes, forgeries and replicas, many with the look and feel — if not the legitimate cultural heritage — of genuine artifacts. A quick scan of eBay reveals that for only $223 (plus $30 shipping and handling from Lima), you, too, can be the proud owner of a "genuine pre-Columbian Moche III Fineline" piece — which, as Stanish points out, can also be bought for $15 off the lady selling pottery to bus-borne tourists in Trujillo, Peru.

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Stanish, one of the world's foremost authorities on Andean anthropology, has been closely monitoring eBay for more than a decade and recalls the trepidation he and his colleagues felt when the auction site launched in 1995. "We were all terrified," he says by phone from his office in Los Angeles. "We thought, 'Oh my God.' You could chip off a piece of the Great Wall of China and sell it online the next day. It would completely democratize the black market for antiquities, like a giant flea market."

But the reality, as Stanish writes in a recent issue of Archaeology, has proven to be the exact opposite. "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," Stanish writes. "They will receive the same amount or even more than they could have received for actual antiquities."

It's simple economics: The rise of eBay — and the elimination of expenses like middlemen, retail stores, high-end art dealers, potential lawsuits and complex smuggling schemes — makes it much more profitable to set up a workshop and produce cheap rip-offs than to break into a pharaoh's tomb and steal legitimate artifacts. Aside from the criminal risks and the arduous journey through the black market, the value of the looting also decreases with every $15 "rare" Neolithic arrowhead that's sold on eBay. As fakes have flooded the market — and Stanish estimates that, at times, 95 percent of the antiquities for sale on eBay are phony - the value of real artifacts also plunges because of the increased likelihood that more and more are replicas.

Over the years, however, Stanish noticed an evolution in the objects coming up for bid on the site, and it's this phenomenon that promises to permanently alter the landscape of the ancient-object black market. At first, many of the antiques consisted of the kind of tchotchkes you'd find in tourist shops — "the junk," Stanish says. But about five years after eBay's emergence, Stanish began to observe a shift toward well-made replicas that fell into an "ambiguous" category, meaning an expert would have to hold the object in his or her hand to judge its authenticity. Stanish realized what was happening: Villagers and workshops around the world — from China to Egypt to Bulgaria to Mexico — were refining their techniques, using their own cultural heritage and knowledge of local materials and resources to produce low-to-middle-cost replicas that looked almost as good as the real thing. "Let me be clear about this: Dealers, collectors, people in the illicit art world and the legitimate art world don't want to admit it, but these folks are smarter than we are," says Stanish, who also assists the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol in authenticating objects that come into the country. "They play the humble villager thing ... but in the chess game of antiquities, they're a step ahead of us."

In recent years, these steps have become more and more sophisticated, even if the workshops remain low-capital, highly labor-intensive operations that, as Stanish notes wryly in our interview, "replicate very well the ancient conditions." Stanish tells of one South American artisan who makes grass-tempered reproductions of a pottery style stretching back 2,000 years; having worked on numerous digs, the fellow learned to use grass for his fakes from ancient middens nearby. The result: If the organic residue on his pots were ever carbon-dated, they would indeed appear to be ancient.

"They have an electric wheel that turns instead of a foot wheel," Stanish says of the laborers in modern replica-producing workshops, "but they use the same clays, they have the same brilliant capacities. They read the archaeological reports. Some of the workshops we went into, we found them with the books open, and they're copying the tiniest details. I have the greatest admiration and respect for these people and their work, which they're very proud of and sell as replicas, but it's being taken by other people and manipulated."

Fakes, of course, have been around almost as long as the antiques market itself; way back in 1886, the legendary Smithsonian anthropologist W.H. Holmes catalogued numerous fraudulent artifacts for sale in Mexico. But these days, as Stanish writes, "every grade and kind of antiquity is being mass-produced and sold in quantities too large to imagine. ... As a former curator myself, I know that an embarrassingly high percentage of objects in our museums are forgeries. What fools the curator also fools the collector."

And, increasingly, the ethnographer is also fooled, as items once thought to be authentic are now turning out to be dupes. Stanish cites the work of San Francisco State University archaeologist Karen Olsen Bruhns, who has identified a very tricky problem stemming from the glut of good-looking forgeries: If the experts who study the objects and draw conclusions about their cultural heritage are in fact examining modern replicas, they could be authenticating objects (and entire aspects of culture) that are simply not real.

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"This is calling into question a lot of their interpretations," Stanish says.

And lest you think this is merely a hypothetical, hysterical scenario, consider the story of Brigido Lara, who was arrested in Mexico in the mid-1970s for looting antiquities. When he requested fresh clay be brought to his cell, he promptly reproduced the ceramic wares he'd been accused of stealing; still, the experts judged the pieces to be ancient. After his release from jail, Lara began to discover that the 40,000-odd pieces he'd made — mostly ceramic wares of the ancient Totonac people, who lived in Veracruz between the seventh and 12th centuries A.D. — were on display in museums all over the world, from the Dallas Museum of Art to New York's Metropolitan Museum. In 1971, the Los Angeles County Museum of Natural History even presented an exhibit on the "Ancient Art of Veracruz" that included at least a dozen objects made by Lara, meaning he had helped to "create" this ancient culture. "He is the undisputed champ," Stanish says with a note of genuine admiration in his voice. "The Italians were probably the great experts in the 19th century, and now eBay has democratized it."

So we know who makes these pieces. The question is: Who buys them?

"Someone who has a romantic vision," Stanish says, and the eye roll is audible in his voice. "Or they're just greedy and think they've got a deal. But if people get smart and they stop buying this stuff, it'll go back to looting. So I've been a little bit wary of publicizing this because looting is still a very serious problem — pillagers are still out there destroying our cultural heritage."

With technology continuing to outpace authorities' abilities to regulate the market, Stanish says the forgers — or artisans, if you prefer — will continue to have the upper hand. Not that he has much sympathy for their customers. "With the advent of laser lathes and chemical techniques to forge patinas," he writes, "anyone who buys an 'Assyrian alabaster stone Mask 700 B.C.' or 'Ancient Chinese Jade Carvings-Frog Arrowhead' thinking that they are real antiquities is, in my opinion, a thoroughly naive fool."

Western Civ checks in on intellectual life and policy solutions in the far American reaches west of the Hudson and Potomac. E-mail: matt.palmquist@miller-mccune.com

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