Saturday, May 30, 2009

'Ancient' artifacts, cyber scams - Los Angeles Times

An interesting new article on Charles Stanish's argument that Ebay has reduced looting by making it more profitable for looters to switch to making fakes for gullible, uninformed buyers, and poisoning the legitimate market. Antiquities dealer Jerome Eisenberg disagrees, noting that his annual sales are in the tens of millions of dollars, including an Internet trade that has "increased exponentially" over the past few years. Eisenberg believes that news about forgeries -- and one might add, the Internet's spreading of the news that it is possible to buy antiquities -- only succeeds in making the market grow. 

Eisenberg, of course, may simply be trying to reassure his clientele, and we do not know whether his sales revenues have increased, even if his internet trade has increased. But the fact that this reputable dealer is able to increase his sales on the internet tells us something that Stanish -- and even Steve Levitt -- do not adequately address. The basic economics of "lemons" teaches that warrantied used cars fetch a higher price than unwarrantied ones, and it would be odd if this were not also true of authenticated antiquities. The Guennol Lioness suggests the price for authenticated antiquities may be going way up. (There's an interesting economic question buried here, which is about the difference between a good that is not as good as it appears, i.e., a lemon, and a good that is no good at all if it is not as it appears, i.e., a fake.)

If that is the case, what does it mean for looting? One thing it might mean is that collectors -- even eBay ones -- will learn to distrust unauthenticated antiquities, and that might lead to declines in sales of both fakes and looted artifacts, assuming some archaeological body of experts could be created to vet artifacts. And since the costs of authentication will raise the price dealers need to charge, some buyers will be driven out of the market.

But if some buyers are driven out, many more will have been enticed in by the news stories and by eBay's seductive ease of perusal. Some among these new buyers will surely become cognoscenti, and bring additional money into the system. The more scrupulous will demand authentication from a recognized body, or put their trust in reputable dealers; there are sure, however, to be some less scrupulous who will be willing to pay a lot for artifacts that have been looted, if the middleman can show that the piece has come from the ground. That, after all, was what Giacomo Medici was doing with his Polaroids of dirt-encrusted vases. The Internet has made that technology quaint: a looter nowadays can snap and send a cellphone photo direct from site to buyer. Looting might well continue under these circumstances, not decline.

'Ancient' artifacts, cyber scams - Los Angeles Times

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Chuck Jones said...

The Guennol Lioness remains problematic. While there is no question that the recent sale is legal, and while it has a known chain of custody, there is also no question that it was originally looted from an unknown site, possibly, or perhaps probably, in Iraq. It therefore has no archaeological context and it's role in any assessment of the traditional arguments on the development of ancient Mesopotamian and Iranian iconography should be weighted accordingly.

Larry Rothfield said...

Charles Jones is right to remind us that even legalized antiquities very often begin as looted illicit antiquities. My point though was that the price of legalized antiquities at the very top end has gone up, if the Lioness is any indication.

Chuck Jones said...

Your point is an important one, and I had no intention of deflecting it. I personally can't help wondering about the thinking and the scale of wealth that allows the expenditure of fifty-seven million dollars on a 8.3cm high sculpture "thought to have been carved 5,000 years ago in what is now Iraq and Iran".

The previous record for a sculpture had set just before the sale of the figurine whan Pablo Picasso's Tete de Femme was sold for twenty-nine million dollars.

It seems unlikely that a sculpture "thought to have been" made by Picasso would have fetched such a sum.

At least the price paid went to "benefit a charitable trust formed by the Martin Family". I wonder what that trust is?