Archaeologists, museums and preservers of ancient cultural heritage have long fretted over people who entered centers of pre-historic activity and looted items to sell to collectors and dealers, with no concern for the way the item was discovered and acquired. They have been concerned that important links to our past were being destroyed or removed from the cultural context required to understand them.
With eBay and web marketing blossoming, these guardians of our history became fearful that looters would be encouraged to steal and damage more. eBay would make it easier to sell their booty more easily.
In a recent article in Archaeology Magazine, Charles Stanish has offered up a different vision of eBay's influence on the market for stolen artifacts. Stanish, who is director of the Archaeological Institute of America, reports that eBay has had an opposite effect.
By popularizing the collection of artifacts and facilitating the sale of "fakes", eBay has encouraged a trade in manufactured fakes at prices so low that there is little or no profit in the hard work of stealing and taking the real thing to market.
In the wake of this, individual craftspeople have begun to make reproductions that are so good they even fool the "experts". They also create objects that are not identical copies but reflect the design elements and use authentic materials in ways that make them collectibles in their own right. They can be acquired at prices that provide competition to real, authentic items looted from graves sites and archaeological digs.
As with so many things in life, the side effects often are more significant than the intended purpose.
The referenced article is oriented to antiquities and artifacts from Andean cultures. But the observations are equally applied to other fields of study and collection of material culture. For example, there is a continuing, occasionally incendiary, discussion on certain websites about African Tribal Art. What is authentic, what is antique and what is new and made for market?
And how can you tell?
One indicator, in my opinion, is the price. If you see an item offered in the semi-anonymous realm of eBay at a ridiculously low price, chances are almost absolute that it is a fake or, to be more polite in some cases, a reproduction.
Even works that have been authenticated by curators and other people paid for their expertise can be less than they are presented as. Increasingly, these "experts" are being trained with fakes that are presented to them as authentic.
At one time, certain testing regimens would reveal if something is genuine or not. That too is becoming less reliable as crafts-people have learned how to use materials identical those used in the making of the item 1,000 years ago.
Moving to the area of Native American Indian art, eBay has taken steps to prevent some items from being misrepresented as Native American in origin. They required sellers to specify the tribal relationship and name of the artist for any piece represented as being made after 1934. Do you see the problem here? The prohibition does not apply to items claimed to have been created prior to 1934.
There are other protections. For items that are pre-historic or historic, Federal regulations require proof of legitimate acquisition. Items taken from public lands are contraband and may not be sold unless acquired prior to the enactment of laws protecting property that rightfully belongs to the public. For more recent items presented as Native American-made, the Indian Arts & Crafts Act applies. This is the law eBay cites to justify their requirements for posting contemporary Native American art.
There are other helpful resources.
o The Indian Arts & Crafts Association requires members to accurately represent items they sell. Members agree, upon penalty of expulsion, not to identify anything as Native American-made unless it is, in fact, made by Native Americans.
o Another resource is the Antique Tribal Art Dealers Association. This group has a stringent code of responsibility for correct identification of items offered for sale by members.
o There also are some discussion groups on Yahoo that are frequented by people with a lot of experience in artifact identification. One of them, firstname.lastname@example.org, regularly highlights items, especially bead work, offered on eBay that members believe to be misrepresented.
Finally, one of your best protections is to work with dealer that you trust (membership in organization such as IACA and ATADA can be guides). Even then, there may be problems. Stanish tells of a dealer he went to in La Paz, Bolivia. He told the owner that many of her pieces were fake. Her reaction was one of anger. He then went through the displayed pieces and pronounced them "fake" or "real". Hooked by the author's apparent expertise, the owner decided to prove him wrong by grabbing one he had identified as "real" and telling him it was "fake" too.
The article, available on line, is an informative and entertaining read.
Aboriginals: Art of the First Person, with web sites at ZuniLink.com, Native-JewelryLink.com, Native-PotteryLink.com and TribalWorks.com, deals in authentic, guaranteed tribal art. We support the protection of items of native patrimony.