Archaeologists and experts say Amazon and eBay need to be proactive about removing suspicious artefacts sold online
Archaeologists and researchers are worried at the amount of illegitimate antiquities that have shown up on sites like eBay and Amazon
By Zoë Bernard
Interested in purchasing a collection of ancient treasure online? You’re in luck. Turns out, there’s a trove of artefacts available for purchase on the digital marketplace, and a quick search on Amazon or eBay yields immediate results. Take your pick from a slew of relics — Coptic Papyrus manuscripts, ancient Roman amphoras from the early ages, collections of yellowing lithographs, and “freshly dug” ancient Roman coins.
But among the hoard of relics, you’ll find a sordid assortment of fakes, looted goods, and embezzled artefacts, and if you’re attempting to buy them, the chances of losing your money can be high. Christopher Marinello, founder of Art Recovery International, a company that specialises in the recovery of stolen or missing cultural property, tells Business Insider that he believes that, when it comes to purchasing antiquities over the internet, there’s a 95 per cent chance that you’ll lose 100 per cent of your money.
Selling stolen or fake goods online is nothing new — illicit items have inundated the digital marketplace since the internet’s inception. But, as more and more brick and mortar antiquities dealers turn to the internet to trade their goods online, the problem has become increasingly severe. The Wall Street Journal recently published a story detailing the prevalence of looted or fake antiquities on the digital marketplace. The Journal’s account reveals the myriad antiquities being peddled on virtually every online avenue available — from contraband items posted to eBay and Amazon to antique collectors offering up embezzled artefacts in Facebook groups or over WhatsApp.
Neil Brodie, a researcher in endangered archaeology at the University of Oxford, estimates that of the 100,000 antiquities glutting the online marketplace — a collection valued somewhere in excess of US$10 million — 80 per cent are either stolen or fakes.
When it come to taking responsibility for the illicit materials being sold on their sites, online marketplaces often opt for a largely hands-off, deregulatory approach, placing the burden on buyers to alert the sites of the presence of suspect artefacts. According to Marinello, companies like Amazon and eBay believe it’s a buyer’s responsibility to personally investigate the provenance of the materials they purchase online. The sites hold themselves unaccountable, says Marinello, “by stating that they are only the ‘highway to commerce’ allowing buyers and sellers to trade and take responsibility for their own actions.” But Marinello believes that Amazon and eBay’s customers deserve better. “Every highway needs maintenance, and eBay and Amazon are no different,” he says.
Marinello worries that amateur collectors of antiquities might find themselves in violation of US federal statutes if they purchase illicit goods online. In a market deluged with suspect materials, he says that there’s a very real possibility that a buyer could find themselves saddled with a criminal charge. “I’ve been unable to convince companies like eBay to offer provenance research services to consumers to protect their interests,” he says.
Given the sheer volume of items offered daily by independent sellers on the online marketplace, finding a way to regulate the validity of goods for sale is difficult at best. When The Wall Street Journal alerted Amazon to a suspicious listing of “freshly dug” Roman coins posted from a vendor called “Ancient Coin House,” Amazon promptly removed the ad. But, days later, the coins were back up for sale again — this time at three times the original price. Business Insider contacted Amazon about the coins’ mysterious return, and a representative pointed out that Amazon’s policy promises to take corrective action if goods for sale are deemed inappropriate, either by suspending the vendor, revoking their selling privileges, or terminating their business relationship. The listing with the looted coins was eventually taken down, but only after Business Insider sent a third email inquiring about the status of the posting.
But, according to experts who specialise in the recovery of stolen art, removing specific contraband items from the site when buyers report them barely scratches the surface of addressing the overall problem. Paul Barford, an archaeologist who writes extensively about the hunting of ancient artefacts, wonders why Amazon hasn’t done more to shut down the suspect items that are listed on the site. In a post on his blog, Barford refers to the 111 advertisements similar to the posting of the coins that Amazon had taken down. The postings, writes Barford, “include Islamic coins from the Middle East.” He continues, “Why did Amazon pull one advert, but not examine the activities of one of their long-term sellers on their portal as a whole?”
In September, Roberta Mazza, a historian of ancient goods and papyrologist at the University of Manchester, took to Twitter to notify eBay of a posting advertising an illegitimate Coptic papyrus sheet being sold on the site. The company tweeted back: “We don’t allow for fakes or misrepresentations. Use the ‘report item’ link if you see something that looks off!” While the listing has since been taken down, Mazza believes that eBay is shirking its responsibility in leaving the monitoring of illegal or illegitimate merchandise up to the buyer.
— Roberta Mazza (@papyrologyatman) September 16, 2017
A representative at eBay describes their marketplace policy as a “shared responsibility model” and says that they engage with a wide range of experts to determine the legitimacy of ancient artifacts being sold on their site. However, Marinello, who has worked with eBay in the past to determine the provenance of items online, wants stricter policing of listings.
“There are still thousands of undocumented, unprovenanced, and fake items being sold, and often from disreputable sellers,” he says.