Charles Stanish, Anthropology professor at UCLA makes some great arguments in the May/June issue of Archaeology magazine about the intersection of eBay and antiquities manufacturing. The piece, “Forging Ahead: Or how I learned to stop worrying and love eBay” argues the popular auction site is not as big a problem for the looting of ancient sites as many of us might believe. Instead, a number of forgeries have begun to flood the market. It is a terrific, and frightening article. It echoes an argument I’ve been trying to make in recent months: that the lack of transparency in the antiquities trade is defrauding our cultural heritage. Without an accurate and impartial accounting of an object’s history, how can we know for sure if an object is forged?
Pictured here is an image from the piece of a forged Moche portrait vessel. What about other potentially forged antiquities? Stanish argues in the piece:
The wealthier collector who up to now has been laughing about the naive folks who buy on eBay is in for a surprise, too: those dealers that provide private sales are some of the forgers’ best customers, knowingly or otherwise. In fact, the workshops reserve their “finest” pieces for collectors using the same backdoor channels as before, but now with a much higher profit margin because they are selling fakes. 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.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. These are easy to pick out because they are not intentional reproductions, but simple pieces manufactured for tourists and sold as such. The creators of these pieces mix up iconography and choose colors and shapes for visual effect. Such objects are clearly not ancient. 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.
This isn’t an isolated problem. Consider the Getty Kouros, the Bolton forgers, and the others we do not yet know about.
One intriguing idea which struck me as I read the piece is how perhaps the demand for antiquities can be appropriately shifted to purchasing modern recreations. Rather than insist on buying an authentic “antiquity” a better model perhaps would be if buyers purchase modern recreations—which might be considered unique works of art in their own right. Many of these forgeries are similar in many respects to the “real” thing. As Stanish argues “I know . . . of one fellow who makes grass-tempered reproductions of a 2,000-year-old pottery style. Having worked on archaeological projects for years, he learned to get the grass for his fakes from ancient middens near his house. If fired properly, and if the organic residue in one of his pots were carbon dated, it would appear to be a very old piece indeed.”