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5/5/2009
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eBay Saves Historic Treasures By Selling Fakes

An anthropologist says eBay has made it more profitable for tomb raiders to create fake artifacts than to pilfer burial sites or other archeological digs.

EBay auction page
(click image for larger view)
EBay auction page

Thanks to eBay, it's now more profitable for tomb raiders to create fake artifacts than to pilfer burial sites or other archeological digs.

In an article in Archeology, UCLA anthropologist Charles Stanish describes how his fear from years ago that eBay would encourage the looting of antiquities has proven unfounded. His experience suggests that eBay's online marketplace, rather than creating an incentive for thievery, has come to inspire fraud.

Stanish bases his claims on a quarter century of work in the Andes and occasional work with U.S. Customs.

"In the pre-Internet days, no one thought that so many people would be willing to put down good money for a low-end piece of tourist art," he writes. "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."

For archeologists, this is a good thing because it reduces the looting of genuine antiquities, an act widely condemned by governments and scholars around the world for its negative cultural impact. "Stopping looting is extremely important because it's a threat to the world's cultural heritage," Stanish said in a phone interview.

In the first few years after eBay was founded, quite a few artifacts sold on eBay were genuine, Stanish said. "Then people began to realize they could make a lot more money selling fakes then the real thing," he said.

Nowadays, the technology to reproduce artifacts is so good that even experts like Stanish have trouble differentiating between genuine and fake artifacts. "Technology is advancing very quickly," he said. "We think we're smarter than these people but we're not. It's very difficult to say something is definitively false."

EBay did not respond to a request for comment. In 2002, the company claimed that only 0.01% of its auctions involved fraud.

The incidence of fraud on eBay today appears to have risen. According to a Consumer Reports WebWatch report released last December, 27% of New York state residents reported having a bad experience with an online auction.

Five years ago, Stanish estimates, 95% of items identified as antiquities were fakes, based on obvious design differences. Today, he says it's too hard to tell without physically inspecting an object.

Stanish argues that eBay is doing the world a favor by sustaining a market for fakes. "From a moral point of view it's very good, in the sense that anything that injects uncertainty into the illegal antiquities market increases cost," he said.

He insisted he doesn't feel sorry for those defrauded because they shouldn't be trying to buy looted objects in the first place.

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