60-Second Science

eBay Lessens Antiquities Looting

A report in Archaeology magazine notes that the ability to easily trade antiquities on eBay has paradoxically lessened looting--because fakes have flooded the market. Cynthia Graber reports

[The following is an exact transcript of this podcast.]

When eBay first came onto the scene more than a decade ago, archaeologists were petrified: easily buying and selling antiquities online might increase the looting and trafficking of archaeological treasures. Now they’re letting out a sigh of relief. Charles Stanish of U.C.L.A. writes in Archaeology magazine that eBay has paradoxically driven down looting.

Stanish is an authority on Andean archaeology. He’s been tracking antiquities on eBay for nine years. He’s also worked with the U.S. customs authority and visited workshops recreating antiquities. Instead of creating an incentive for people to go out and steal artifacts, eBay created a market for fakes, carefully produced by artisans in China, Peru, Mexico and elsewhere. The forgeries can be sold at absurdly low prices.

The flood of fakes has depressed the market, lowering the incentive to loot. And collectors are ever more wary of buying on-line. Stanish estimates that half of the Andean artifacts on eBay 10 years ago were fake. Five years later, 95 percent were phony. Bad news for the people who think they’re buying stolen treasures. Good news for archaeologists and the sites they study.

—Cynthia Graber

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