Department of Unintended Consequences

by on April 22, 2009 at 1:18 pm in The Arts | Permalink

The topic is eBay and the antiquities trade.  It turns out that looting has gone down, the opposite of what was expected from the expansion of eBay.  Supply is so elastic, and so many fakes are made, that looting is less worthwhile than it used to be:

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…But a very curious thing has happened. It
appears that electronic buying and selling has actually hurt the
antiquities trade.

…many of the primary
"producers" of the objects have shifted from looting sites to faking
antiquities. I've been tracking eBay antiquities for years now, and
from what I can tell, this shift began around 2000, about five years
after eBay was established.  …Today, every grade and
kind of antiquity is being mass-produced and sold in quantities too
large to imagine.

…Because the eBay phenomenon has substantially reduced total costs by
eliminating middlemen, brick-and-mortar stores, high-priced dealers,
and other marginal expenses, the local eBayers and craftsmen can make
more money cranking out cheap fakes than they can by spending days or
weeks digging around looking for the real thing. It is true that many
former and potential looters lack the skills to make their own
artifacts. But the value of their illicit digging decreases every time
someone buys a "genuine" Moche pot for $35, plus shipping and handling.
In other words, because the low-end antiquities market has been flooded
with fakes that people buy for a fraction of what a genuine object
would cost, the value of the real artifacts has gone down as well,
making old-fashioned looting less lucrative.

I thank Lawrence Rothfield for the pointer.

1 Ron April 22, 2009 at 5:05 pm

Another reason I think is that part of the value of antiques resides in the opaqueness of their value. Ebay somewhat made the low-mid level antiques into commodity – and who is going to collect a commodity? Moreover, in the case of showing off such commodities, the authenticity really doesn’t matter.

2 Lord April 22, 2009 at 8:18 pm

“Today, every grade and kind of antiquity is being mass-produced and sold in quantities too large to imagine.”

Perhaps for those dug up, but not for valuable period pieces. Louis XV cartels are a rarity anytime.

3 Zamfir April 23, 2009 at 3:00 am

The title of your post suggests that an increase of looting would have been an intended consequence of Ebay…

4 jamie April 23, 2009 at 11:32 am

Another example of a long-tail market.

The costs of distribution are lowered, and the costs of duplication are small

5 SYSTEMAX Laptop Battery May 18, 2009 at 10:13 am

oday, every grade and kind of antiquity is being mass-produced and sold in quantities too large to imagine.”

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: