Charles Stanish: How I learned to stop worrying and love eBay

Roundup: Talking About History

A little over a decade ago, archaeologists experienced a collective nightmare--the emergence of eBay, the Internet auction site that, among other things, lets people sell looted artifacts. The black market for antiquities has existed for centuries, of course, with devastating consequences for the world's cultural heritage. But we could at least take some comfort that it was largely confined to either high-end dealers on one end of the economic spectrum or rural flea markets on the other. The sheer physical constraints of transporting and selling illegal artifacts kept the market relatively small. But the rise of online auction sites promised to drastically alter the landscape. And so it did, just not in the dire way we had anticipated.

Back in the pre-eBay days, the cost of acquiring and selling an antiquity was high. The actual looter was usually paid little, but various middlemen down the line added huge costs. During my 25 years of working in the Andes, I have often seen this dynamic at work. In years past, transporting an object was a big expense, even for portable artifacts, and the potential for arrest added to the total cost of doing business. In addition, the expense of authentication, conservation, and occasional restoration of the pieces, made buying and selling quality antiquities a wealthy person's vice.

Our greatest fear was that the Internet would democratize antiquities trafficking and lead to widespread looting. This seemed a logical outcome of a system in which anyone could open up an eBay site and sell artifacts dug up by locals anywhere in the world. We feared that an unorganized but massive looting campaign was about to begin, with everything from potsherds to pieces of the Great Wall on the auction block for a few dollars. But a very curious thing has happened. It appears that electronic buying and selling has actually hurt the antiquities trade.

How is it possible? The short answer is that many of the primary "producers" of the objects have shifted from looting sites to faking antiquities....

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