Bones of contention: The global trade in archaeological and ethnographic human remains

These days, research on the depth and breadth of the global illicit antiquities trade, and how best to dismantle and prevent it, grows ever-more diverse. One particularly under-studied aspect continues to fascinate me: the trade in archaeological and ethnographic human remains. With licit and clearly illicit faces, deals conducted online (but most likely primarily off-line), this trade forms but one component of a vast global “red market“- the vast, legal and illegal trade in organs, tissues, eggs, blood, even children.

The existence of this trade is especially poignant given the affront to human dignity it represents, as portions of once-living people, with added significance as objects of cultural heritage, are reduced to commodities to buy and sell on the “open” market, not to mention the damage caused to ancient and recent burial sites to provide some of this “merchandise.”

A new paper just published by myself and my colleague Prof. Duncan Chappell from the University of Sydney, Australia, presents the first attempt to update, and provide a snapshot, of the online portion of this trade. It is the first relevant attempt, by our reckoning, in more than 10 years. It has been released early-view online in the Journal of Crime, Law, and Social Change (DOI # 10.1007/s10611-014-9528-4), and is now available in the SAFE resources section. In it, we provide an overview and an update, from legal, criminological and archaeological perspectives, of the current scope of the (predominately) online trade in human remains.

Given that this research was conducted on our own time, by necessity we focused on that component of the trade we could actually access-online markets from eBay to private galleries to auction houses. Given that very little published research of this nature has been conducted, and the most prominent examples of what exists focus on such specific contexts as the eBay sale of specimens with potential medico-legal import (e.g. Huxley and Finnegan 2004), we figured it was about time to rectify this.

Our search for archaeological and ethnographic human remains includes everything from mummies to trophy skulls, Tibetan skull-cap “damaru” drums and “kangling” flutes made from human femora and tibiae, to all manner of items marketed as “curios,” as well as primarily cranial specimens allegedly bought and sold for medical research only. Using key word and phrase searches on common search engines as well as mining public-access collector and dealer fora, we created a database that allowed us to quantify this ‘snapshot’ of what is being sold where, and by which kind of dealer (auction house vs. online gallery vs. private, usually anonymous, sellers). This information should provide a baseline for future studies to keep tracking the trade over time, especially when/if laws change in source or demand countries.

Without rehashing all the results in advance of publication, the data in general suggests a small but persistent global trade still exists, primarily conducted by European and North American based dealers selling items (primarily trophy skulls) from as far away as Peru, New Guinea, Vanuatu, West Africa, Naga land in India, and Borneo. More surprising were at least one example of an Egyptian mummy head recently and unsuccessfully offered for sale, with records still available online if one searched the darker corners of the internet. Although the dealer or auction websites that our searches turned up quickly became repetitive, in time, new examples will continuously come to light.

Unsurprisingly, the data suggests that auction houses, smaller online galleries and private (usually anonymous) sellers target different markets (“tribal art” enthusiasts vs. seekers of curios and “oddities” vs. seekers of oft-times professionally prepared medical specimens, allegedly for continued teaching purposes). Substantial overlap occurs. Although rare instance of the altruistic “sale” of human remains can occur, as the photo below from the Mütter Museum “Save Our Skulls” adoption program attests to, usually the exchange of money for human remains is purely profit driven. 

hyrtl skull collection Hyrtl skull collection, Mutter Museum College of Physicians, Philadelphia.

Different marketing tactics were also employed, with the majority of online galleries and some auction houses presenting “back stories” of old collections or collecting trips, occasional reference literature, and dealer biographies to entice potential customers and convince them of the “authenticity” of what they seek to buy. Sadly, the same care was not taken to ensure potential customers of the legality (for transfer of ownership, import or export) of the sale. Indeed, the overall impression gained from our research is that most dealers in such material are more than happy to operate by “caveat emptor” and abdicate responsibility once payment occurs, and (for this trade to exist) it appears that many buyers are willing to play along. Perhaps any sales conducted one-on-one off line are even less transparent?

With the majority of ongoing or recent sales recorded at the time of writing via small, semi-anonymous galleries or private dealers hiding behind eBay handles, this is not surprising. Despite clear policy, our research suggests that enforcement continues to rely too heavily on self-policing or reports from concerned citizens when news of suspicious auctions “go viral.” Although the rules state that only non-Native American remains used/to be used specifically for medical research purposes can be listed, we could detect no evidence whatsoever that any kind of due diligence or proof is required by either buyer or seller. Examples such as this demonstrate this clearly.

Even in the short amount of time between online release last month and now, I’ve discovered or heard about several more examples of ongoing or halted sales of human remains. Ranging from the attempted, but halted sale of an autopsied medical specimen as a raffle prize (thanks be to the astute blogger and animal bone enthusiast Jake of “Jake’s Bones”), to the unexpected donation of three skulls; two likely Caucasian former medical specimens, one a Native American child of unknown context, to a Seattle Goodwill. Fortunately, this donation has inspired others to turn in human remains in their possession to the local Medical Examiner’s office, as opposed to anonymous sale to the highest bidder or being throwing away.

Other examples of dealers in human remains as ‘curios’ have been uncovered, and will be added to a greatly expanded database as we take this research further and reassess motivations for buying and selling in more detail. Our long term goal is to document and publicize as many case studies as possible so as to both raise awareness and help affect legal reform. It is my firm belief that research on any form of illicit or questionably legal activity must also go hand in hand with public awareness.

Deliberate sale of freshly surfaced remains destroys archaeological context, while the sale and seemingly no-questions-asked purchasing of even old medical specimens and ethnographica not only risks breaking local or international law, but also robs a people of unique cultural heritage and, as importantly, steals the dignity of respect in death from the person being sold.

At the end of the day, we must remember that even if only a small component of the global trade in antiquities or ethnographica, the trade in human remains uniquely cross-cuts both the “red” and “grey” market (illicit made licit).

With undoubtedly much occurring off-line and policing of the online trade apparently largely voluntary, much remains to be done to expose those who put profit above all other concerns when handling these “bones of contention.”

Curtailing the loss of cultural patrimony by curtailing demand

Three years ago, we made this appeal to the trade: [U]ntil order is restored, we believe that if the demand for Egyptian antiquities is curtailed, if not stopped, the loss of Egypt’s cultural patrimony during this tumultuous time would be curbed. We then conducted a poll on the question: “Should market countries stop buying antiquities from Egypt until order is restored?” Seventy-six percent responded “Yes”; and thirty-six percent went further by responding “Yes. Antiquities trade should stop, period.” What this informal poll shows is unequivocal.

Should market countries stop buying antiquities from Egypt survey results

The US remains a leading market for antiquities. A quick search for “Egyptian antiquities” on the eBay site at the time of this writing yielded more than 180 results, ranging from an “ancient silver pendant” selling for $5 to a “wooden sarcophagus” in a three-day auction with an opening price of $12,665.00, marked down from $14,000, available within 5 miles from midtown Manhattan zip code 10019. It is therefore welcome news to see that, according to this report in the Cairo Times, the world’s largest online auction site eBay has agreed with the US Egyptian Embassy to stop the sale of Egyptian antiquities. While it is unclear from the Cairo Times article if this agreement only applies to eBay in the US (what about eBay in Germany, Japan, etc.?) or when the sales ban will take effect, this is a significant move.

It is encouraging to see Egyptian authorities recognize that putting heat on major market players such as eBay is one way to curtail the loss of the world’s most precious nonrenewable resource.

SAFECORNER has addressed the concern regarding online auctions of antiquities for some time. We therefore applaud eBay for setting aside profit-making and joining the effort to save Egypt’s cultural patrimony, and our shared cultural heritage. We can only hope that eBay affiliates outside the U.S. will follow suit, e.g., by limiting or banning the sale of Cypriot artifacts on eBay Cyprus.

How much looting needs to happen before we start to think twice?

In an atmosphere of general unrest and lack of control or safety provided by government, looting frequently rises to unprecedented levels as those desperate for quick cash plunder from the coffers of our global heritage. However, it is not the looters who stand to gain the most from such a timely situation, but rather the collectors who are able to add another invaluable piece to their collections, ripped from the fabric of civilization.

Yet even before the events of the Arab Spring raged across the Middle East and enraptured the world, the market for Syrian and Egyptian antiquities was booming. Many lots (objects for sale at auctions) were selling for above their estimated prices, with one pair of carved stone capitals from Syria selling for GBP 313,250 – more than five times its pre-sale estimate of GBP 60,000. With no provenance at all listed in the lot’s record, it’s incredible that a collector would nevertheless spend over a quarter of a million pounds on artifacts that could have been illicitly excavated or exported.

My process

I was curious as to how the looting and destruction that swept the Middle East during the Arab Spring might have impacted sales of Egyptian and Syrian antiquities, so I decided to compare pre-2011 and post-2011 sales in the hopes that this would shed some light on the issue.

I conducted this research both online and in libraries, accessing catalogues from past auctions from the Sotheby’s and Christie’s websites, as well as in the National Gallery of Art Library in Washington, D.C. and the National Art Library in London. I found the websites quite difficult to navigate, and it feels as though the online catalogues are there for casual perusing rather than serious research. There is no means of collating relevant items or auctions, and the information listed online leaves quite a lot to be desired.

Techniques used by auction houses

sothebys Unprovenanced Syrian stone capitals sold at Sotheby’s

Many of the artifacts, like the stone capitals described above, have no provenance listed, or will have an incredibly sparse record, like this Syrian limestone head which was simply “acquired prior to 1987” or this basalt torso of Herakles “said to have been found prior to World War II” (both pieces auctioned in 2010). The Herakles statue sold for 230,000 USD, twice its estimate. Many other pieces sold for over their estimates, indicating that a healthy appetite for Egyptian and Syrian artifacts still exists.

One of the thinnest provenances I saw was simply a listing of previous auctions, as if having made it through the system once before is enough proof that an artifact is fair game to be auctioned again. (If you’re interested in seeing some of these techniques in action, check out any catalogues from auctions of antiquities at Sotheby’s or Christie’s and you will quickly come across them.)

I had hoped that perhaps things would have improved after the events of 2011, but this was not the case. Provenance listings were no more specific or accurate than they had been previously, and there was no indication from any major auction house that they were taking into account the uncertainty in the Middle East when it came to acquiring objects for auction. In auctions taking place immediately after the Arab Spring, there were no reassuring notices placed in the front of the glossy antiquities catalogues confirming that the auction house had ensured the legality of all pieces (although perhaps they had — I’m not making accusations, just observations).

Even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

Another way auction houses shift attention from an artifact’s physical origins to its aesthetic qualities is by listing multiple countries as the possible place of creation. As Colin Renfrew explains in Loot, Legitimacy and Ownership, having an unclear place of origin prevents any one country from laying claim to the item. Moreover, even if an auction house deigns to ask a country if it believes an item has been looted, there are obviously no public records from illicit excavations, and therefore no way for that country to prove that it was taken, from where, or even when.

I had expected to see a huge increase in the number of items placed for sale following the 2011 revolutions. However, there actually appears to have been no increase, which surprised me. Auction activity was relatively uniform from 2009 to 2013. Had there actually not been any items looted during the general state of instability and anarchy that seized much of the region? My suspicion is that these objects just haven’t had enough time to reach the international market. Looting is absolutely happening, as evidenced by photographs of sites speckled with large holes and scattered artifacts.

Evidence for looting

Indefatigable Egyptian archaeologist Monica Hanna has been single-handedly exposing an incredible amount of looting in Egypt, even going so far as to confront some of the armed looters herself. Hanna sent me some pictures of the landscape at Abu Sir el-Malaq, where looters have left behind piles of ravaged bones and mummies in favor of more saleable and attractive artifacts. This is just some of the damage that she has documented at that site:

abu sir el malaq 4 Bones left behind as looters uncover graves
abu sir el malaq 3 A child carries an artifact tossed aside by looters
abu sir el malaq 2 Archaeologists survey the damage at Abu Sir el-Malaq
abu sir el malaq 1 The pockmarked lunar landscape left by looters

The reality is that looting is definitely happening in Egypt. We haven’t yet seen these artifacts reach a public market, but they are out there. Or — even worse — as the events of the last week have shown, stolen artifacts may have actually been destroyed by those who took them, like we saw at the Malawi Museum. Hanna herself was at the Malawi Museum when looters stormed its doors, and defended its treasures against armed attackers. Some of the artifacts taken have since been returned, but hundreds remain missing, and it is possible that many of those still at large have been irreparably destroyed.

Trafficking Culture, a research programme into the global trade of looted artifacts based at the University of Glasgow, advocates using Google Earth as a means of tracking looting. This screenshot from Google Maps seems to show holes dug by looters south of the Great Pyramids at Giza:

Giza Holes


There has yet to be a “boom” in the number of Near Eastern antiquities for sale because dealers can afford to wait. As demonstrated by the mere existence of the Swiss Freeport (and its shameful role in Giacomo Medici’s looting empire, documented in The Medici Conspiracy), it’s fairly easy to have such a backlog of illicitly obtained items so as to not need to immediately sell newly acquired ones. Moreover, dealers aren’t dumb: they know that flooding the market with unprovenanced antiquities not only looks suspicious, but also will devalue each item as supply increases. Just as the Mugrabi family carefully plays the market to keep Warhol’s value high, so antiquities dealers know when to buy and when to sell.

It is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws.

Tess Davis, a member of the “Trafficking Culture” project, is researching the process that many artifacts go through as they are essentially smuggled into legitimacy. It will be interesting to see the conclusions that her research yields, and I hope that it will shed some light on the process that looted artifacts have — and are still — undoubtedly been going through for the past two years.

Even searching for something as simple as “Egyptian antiquity” on eBay turns up multiple results for unprovenanced objects. While it is very likely that these are fakes rather than looted originals, it is disturbing that the public appetite for antiquities is so great that one can easily buy a faience figurine for just a few hundred dollars and no thought of import laws, UNESCO or otherwise. (Luckily, UCLA archaeologist Charles Stanish believes that eBay’s large selection of fakes is actually helping to stop looting, estimating that 95 percent of the archaeological artifacts listed on eBay are forgeries).

“The only Good Collector is an ex-Collector.” – Colin Renfrew

The idea of a benevolent collector has been problematized many times, including by Renfrew, who concludes that “the only Good Collector is an ex-Collector” (Public Archaeology, 2000). Renfrew does not have a problem with the act of collecting (identifying Old Master paintings and cigarette cards as hypothetical items exempt from his condemnation), but rather the practice of collecting specifically unprovenanced antiquities. But beyond just provenance, are there other issues at hand when it comes to looting and sales?

My conclusion is not that this research proves that the sale of Middle Eastern antiquities is out of control due to a single incident or period of conflict (as satisfying a conclusion as that would have been). Rather, it is that the looting specifically is out of control. It is likely that some will make the counter-argument that until we see these artifacts on the market, there is nothing we can do, or perhaps even that until such objects turn up at an auction, there isn’t any real proof that damage to the cultural record is happening.

This is wrong - looting is happening now, and without more awareness, it will continue to happen until there is nothing left to be learned from the decontextualized and ravaged objects. Monica Hanna told me that “raising awareness is really what we need,” so please help SAFE spread the word. A community on Facebook called Egypt’s Heritage Task Force has done a tremendous amount of work to track and stop looting and destruction of heritage sites, and it is that cooperation that we will continue to need in the coming months.

You can also join SAFE’s latest campaign, Say Yes to Egypt, and read more about our efforts to raise awareness about the looting going on in Egypt here.

EBay: Lip service is not enough!

As the holiday shopping season goes into full force, eBay – the leading online auction and shopping site – once again offers a dizzying array of objects listed under “antiquities.” Described as “early Neolithic,” “Bronze age”, “Tang Dynasty,” to “Khmer,” “Pre-Columbian,” “12th Century Djenne,” “Ancient Roman,” etc. these “antiquities” are advertised to originate from all corners of the world. They include coins, pottery, shards, pieces of “ancient” monuments, statues, textiles, jewelry of all kinds, so on and so forth. The prices offered would suit any budget, ranging from a mere penny to millions of dollars, usually with shipping thrown in for free!

According to eBay’s web site:

Listings for antiquities have to meet the following criteria:
·       Items have to be authentic.
·       Sellers have to include either a photo or a scanned image of an official document that clearly shows both the item’s country of origin and the legal details of the sale (it has to be approved for import or export).

Authentic artifacts, fossils, and relics have to meet the following criteria:
·       The item has to match the time-period category that it’s listed in.
·       If the item has been reworked or modernized in any way, this information has to be called out and fully described in the listing.

Reproduction of an artifact, fossil, or relic has to meet the following criteria:
·       The listing title and description have to clearly state that the item is a reproduction.
·       The item must be listed in the appropriate Reproduction or Fantasy category.

The site also lists specific restrictions on Native American artifacts, stipulating what eBay considers not allowed:

Describing items in the following terms because they make it hard for buyers to find authentic versions:
·       Alaska Native style
·       American Indian style
·       Native American style
·       Other descriptions that may suggest the item was made by a Native American

Are these guidelines are being followed? We invite our readers to take a few minutes to peruse the eBay site and see for themselves.

In 2002, Christopher Chippindale & David Gill said: “eBay does not closely supervise what is offered” in their seminal study on the subject “On-line auctions:  a new venue for the antiquities”. Nine years later, has anything changed?

It is high time for eBay (and its many counterparts) to put action behind its own policies and guidelines. Posting them on the web site alone simply does not suffice.

Giving "victims" of the antiquities trade a voice: science in the public’s interest.

It’s been some time since I’ve written for SAFE, but an article discovered while searching the bioarchaeological literature for my own research struck me as so incredible, I felt I just had to share it here. This link will lead you to a recent Journal of Forensic Sciences article by Seidemann, Stojanowski and Rich, detailing how they put cutting edge bioarchaeological and forensic human identification techniques to use in an almost unbelievable case…the identification of a human skull almost sold on eBay!! Yes, you read that right! As the article explains, the investigation and research began when the Louisiana Division of Archaeology was informed by the National Park Service that someone was attempting to sell a probable Native American skull on eBay, from an undisclosed address in Lake Charles, Louisiana. The seller’s photos made it clear that the skull had been unearthed at some point in the past, as soil was still adhering to or filling most major orifices. In this case, the seller was fortunately cooperative, both voluntarily turning over several artifacts believed to be associated with the skull, and claiming what was deemed to be “real ignorance” of prohibitions against selling human remains; thus direct charges were dropped.

The seller suggested that the skull might have come from within the grounds of the “Pohler Estate,” formerly owned by Roy Pohler, a “well known antiquities collector in the early to middle 20th century.” Items from his collection are still in circulation, for example Item DIOT5 here. His globe-spanning collection was mostly collected before relevant national and international conventions were put into place, and was almost entirely without specific provenance. Therefore, investigators rightfully concluded that there was no guarantee that the skull derived from within the boarders of the current state of Louisiana, and thus bioarchaeological, soil, palynological (pollen) and mineralogical analyses were deemed necessary to identify the likely ancestral affinity of the skull and pin-point its geographic origin with as much certainty as possible.

Work of this nature would be crucial to make certain that the remains were indeed Native American, and to determine which contemporary tribe (or the descendants of a tribe forcibly relocated in recent history) the skull should be repatriated to under NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act). As the “Louisiana Unmarked Human Burial Sites Preservation Act” goes even further than NAGPRA in attaching severe civil and criminal penalties for the disturbance, trade or sale of human remains, regardless of ancestry, determining if the individual represented by the skull could have derived from a site or population currently within the borders of Louisiana took on even more significance.

Without going into too much detail, I can summarize the bioarchaeological analysis discussed in the article thusly: a general success! I emphasize the word general because, although the skull is one of the most telling regions of the human skeleton when it comes to determining age, sex, and population affinity, without as much of the rest of the skeleton as possible, conclusions can only be general. Unfortunately, no infracranial bones (bones below the skull) were recovered in association. General age and sex was easy enough to determine due to the skull’s good condition, but the article stresses that the sparse and wide-spread nature of large collections of North American Native American remains that have been thoroughly analysed and published, in terms of the most common measurements of the skull, face, and teeth that can be used to place a skeleton of unknown ancestry into its statistically most probable population(s), are few and far between.

In this era of more carefully controlled collaborative excavations of Native American prehistoric sites (a good thing!) and, on the other hand, occasionally “premature” repatriation of skeletal collections before all possible information is obtained (a bad thing, in my opinion), the amount of published data useful to forensic anthropologists and antiquities trade investigators in cases like this is unlikely to skyrocket. Further confounding the assigning of this skull to a particular historic or contemporary population, the article notes, was the unknown radiocarbon (C14) age of the remains and the presence of deliberate cranial deformation, a practice common to many Native groups throughout the Americas, but one which limits the number of useful measurements. Nevertheless, the skull was identified as Native American (likely pre-contact).

What really intrigued me, however, was how the soil and pollen analyses came into play. First of all, soil sampled from the skull reacted “violently” when mixed with water and hydrofluoric acid, “typical of soils from the Atlantic Coastal Plain that contain a great deal of fine-grained mineral matter, including the clay mineral caolinite.” Although no pollen was recovered, many charcoal fragments and fungal spores from several general Southeast US species were. Together with a very high presence of quartz (characteristic of loess soil), the small size of the charcoal particles, and the important lack of flowering plant pollen suggest that the individual “was interred in sediments that had accumulated in a xeric, fire-prone terrestrial environment that supported little in the way of higher plant life.” Such a combination of factors, on the North American continent, pointed to the Middle Mississippi Valley.

The authors conclude that although scientific attempts at “fleshing out” this individuals’ history, given only a skull, produced only general results, the science brought to bare was at the very least able to secure repatriation within Louisiana and, as important, the prompt action taken and the cooperation of the seller took one more “set” of human remains off the market. As the authors note, and as I’ve blogged about before here and on my own blog, the sale of human remains and/or directly associated artifacts on eBay continues despite eBay’s own “Prohibited and Restricted Items Policy on Human Remains,” which specifically targets Native American remains and associated grave goods. A 2004 article the authors cite adds to this concern by noting the ease with which unscrupulous eBay dealers can label prehistoric remains as modern medical specimens, the high prices remains can fetch, and the deliberately targeted looting this encourages. Lest we in the antiquities trade monitoring community think that only artifacts ‘surface’ here, the articles discussed above dismantle that illusion. Hopefully after the rather public expore of these loopholes by the cases discussed above, even more due diligance will continue and an actual ban on the sale of all human remains will be enforced. Thankfully in the Louisiana case above, concerned citizens and scientists intervened in time.

(Image courtesy of

A small victory?

A couple days ago, I posted an expose about that proportion of the Southern Hemisphere antiquities trade currently passing through the hands of BC Galleries. They have apparently removed from their catalogs the Iron Age bangles containing human arm bones mentioned in my last post, but still feature other highly suspect artifacts, such as this immense Dong Son drum, this late Iron Age bracelet, or this prehistoric Thai shell necklace, the rarity and condition of which points to their previous use as grave goods, or, in the case of the drum, something requiring concentrated effort to unearth, clean, and ship once perhaps ‘accidentally’ discovered. What I wish to share now, however, is another small, but significant, victory; an example of what positive media pressure can do to “interrupt” the vicious cycle of the antiquities trade…at least where some of the most morally and ethically objectionable pieces are concerned.

Today, a colleague of mine (J. Lewis) brought a short news article to my attention. This piece reports that Drs. Lynley Wallis and Claire Smith (presidents of the Australian Archaeological Association and the World Archaeological Congress, respectively) formally called upon eBay to remove from sale two lots of advertised “Dong Son” Iron Age “votive bronze armlets” with sections of ulna and radius (forearm bones) still remaining within the grave soil cemented inside them (see above left). Citing “concern about the cultural origins of the items for sale, as well as the affront to human dignity resulting from the sale of human body parts,” (in other words, direct violation of Item 1 of the Vermillion Accord on Human Remains, adopted by the WAC in 1989) the subsequent press release occurred on April 2nd, and as of today (April 7th), the items have been pulled down (here and here).

These items were first made available through a specifically established ‘eBay Store,’ ran as a subsidiary of eBay Australia. “The Unique Things Store” exists to “sell quality items supplied by reliable dealers and galleries, that are members of Antique and Antiquities associations.” While it should be stated for the record that this e-Store, like BC Galleries, does not just deal in antiquities of dubious provenance, it becomes apparent with even minimal effort that the archaeological artifacts for sale are highly suspect. This gallery is also listed as a member and/or distribution partner of AADA, CINOA, and Sotheby’s (affiliations which I suspect greatly assist remotely located Southern Hemisphere dealers get access to artifacts from non-geographically proximate regions). With the advent of global distribution networks made possible by the Internet, smaller, down-market galleries and dealers can amass collections, slash prices, and still reach clients. To me, this represents the newer face of the antiquities trade worldwide…increasingly out of the more ‘elite’ auction houses, and into the public sphere. I support this assertion with the following statement, viewable by customers on every catalog entry page (for example, this c. 450BC Phoenician coin): “Many of these items are priceless fragments of history and would sell for many times their listed prices at large auction houses so be quick.

To put their customers at ease, however, they state upfront that everything has been examined by “experts,” and that a C.O.A. (Certificate of Authenticity) can be provided upon request. Once again, the “authenticity” of a ‘surfaced’ item for sale, in the mind of the dealer and most probable buyers, trumps any ethical concerns over the origins of that item! Refunds can be had at any time if a buyer later discovers a forgery (here I’m guessing that the burden of proof upon the buyer will be quite intense), and a mailing list is provided for satisfied customers to receive updates on new offers.

Importantly, in small letters at the bottom of the web page formerly advertising the armlet with human bones inside (and appearing on the catalog entry page of every item for sale), is the following statement: “I also sell products via other methods and may remove my listing if (sic) my item and use the (those?) options if the item does not have bids, so if you are interested bid now or you may miss out” (click on the bronze armlet photo above to be redirected to that page). This strongly suggests to me that, even if perceived lack of interest (or, in the case of the above mentioned armlets, public pressure) prompts the website maintainer to remove an item from bidding, this does not mean it is removed from circulation. What will the ultimate fate of these macabre “antiquities” be? In my opinion, only time and further monitoring will tell.

The Problem With Fake Antiquities

It was recently reported that looting of archaeological sites in parts of Peru had declined due to an increase in the production of cheap fakes. I suggested in a previous post that Peruvian archaeology had found an unusual alley in online auction, sites such as eBay, because local thieves could make more money manufacturing cheap fakes than they could by looting unexcavated sites. However, the production of fakes should not be encouraged as a means to prevent the looting and destruction of cultural heritage. Fakes confuse real history and people are misled. The Royal Ontario Museum’s exhibition “Fakes & Forgeries: Yesterday and Today” (which is running until April 4, 2010) underlines this point. For example, forgeries of Egyptian antiquities often deceive individuals who do not know what to look for; eager buyers frequently do not have the proper education. Fake Egyptian statues and reliefs, such as that pictured (above left), have flooded the illicit antiquities market. The sandstone on this forgery is tinted with a reddish pigment to give the appearance of old age. The artist has also depicted the crown of Upper Egypt incorrectly – it is supposed to cover the nape of the pharaoh’s neck. Moreover, the carving of the facial features is very rough leading the Royal Ontario Museum to describe it as a “crude and contrived representation”. This example highlights how information is confused when it is manufactured.

The urn pictured (above right) is from Mexico and is also a fake. It is possible to decipher that this is not authentic by its style; thermoluminescence dating is not required. An examination of the motifs shows this to be a fake. The Royal Ontario Museum tells us that “a forger might copy the feathers from one genuine item, the tunic from another and the pedestal from yet another. Though each part seems authentic, the forgers combined them together in ways that don’t make artistic sense”. Fakes of this kind can create a great deal of confusion by mixing styles from different eras or locations.

Finally, it should be noted that while the production of fakes can sometimes discourage local thieves from looting, it does nothing to educate people of the damage caused by looting nor does it reduce the demand for authentic artifacts. As long as collectors are willing to pay thousands of dollars for authentic antiquities there will always be looters available to steal the most sought after items. Furthermore, an influx of fakes to the market makes it more difficult for border controls to prevent the smuggling of illicit antiquities. An exhibition, “The Metropolitan Police Service’s Investigation of Fakes and Forgeries“, opened at the Victoria & Albert Museum on 23 January 2010 and runs until 7 Febuary. In this display the Metropolitan Police Service’s Art and Antiquities Unit will showcase some of the investigation methods involved in detecting and and preventing the crime of art forgery.

Ebay & Looting

Peruvian archaeology has found an unusual ally in the battle against looting in the internet and websites such as eBay. This is according to Charles Stanish, a UCLA archaeologist, writing in the June 2009 issue of Archaeology. Stanish has excavated for 25 years at fragile archaeological sites in Peru. It was feared that online auction sites would increase looting as the looter could sell directly to the buyer eliminating costly middlemen. In fact, online auction websites have actually helped reduce looting as the average looter or craftsman can now make more money selling cheap fakes online rather than spend weeks digging for the real thing and running the risk of not finding anything. It is less costly to transport a fake and the risk of arrest is removed. Moreover, workshops churning out cheap fakes and replicas can also produce elaborately detailed fakes which can be so authentic even experts are deceived. Locals can use original ancient moulds, often found during excavations but of no real value themselves, to create exact replicas using clay from original sources and local minerals to make paint for decorating the pottery. The only way to know for sure if a piece is genuine is through thermo-luminescence dating which calculates when the pottery has been fired. But this is expensive for the buyer and many sellers will not offer refunds on pottery that has undergone “destructive” analysis. Ten years ago the ratio of real to fake Peruvian artefacts for sale online was roughly 50:50. It is now thought that only 5% of items are authentic, 30% are fakes and the rest are too difficult to judge from online photographs. This turnaround emphasises how paradoxically online auction sites have helped to combat the trade in illicit antiquities. Also, its not just Peruvian fakes that are flooding the illicit antiquities online market; Chinese, Bulgarian, Egyptian and Mexican workshops are also producing fakes at a frenetic pace.

To read my thoughts on fakes, please read my follow up article.


EBay: A Solution to the Illicit Antiquities Trade?

A story from the latest Archaeology Magazine (C. Stanish, “Forging Ahead. Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love eBay,” Archaeology Magazine 62.3 (May/June 2009)) has been the subject of some blog discussions lately, e.g.:

Larry Rothfield, “eBay Reduces Looting — Maybe,” The Punching Bag(21 April 2009)Derek Finchman, “‘What Fools the Curator Also Fools the Collector’,” Illicit Cultural Property (21 April 2009)

Stanish argues that eBay has been flooded with fake antiquities, ultimately making looting less profitable as the prevalence of fakes drives prices down. Like Larry Rothfield, I think the overall point of the article is persuasive, but I do find parts of it too simplistic.

View the full discussion at Numismatics and Archaeology.

Regulating sales of artefacts in Britain soon?

The advocates of a free and unregulated market in portable antiquities frequently point to as the pattern they wish would be emulated globally. There seems to be a perception in the collecting community – especially in the USA – that in the United Kingdom there is some artefactual free for all and the heritage is up for grabs. The liberal laws of Britain are held up as a model which, portable antiquity dealers and their supporters say, other nations should be encouraged to adopt, thus freeing more antiquities for sale to an expanding market. According to one collecting advocate who is also a dealer in portable antiquities: “The UK has the most enlightened antiquities laws in the world and that if other nations were even half as civilized and as wise, there would be no significant looting problems […] thus, I do not feel any obligation to help enforce what I perceive as unwise and unenforceable restrictive antiquities export laws of source states, always providing that importation of artifacts into the USA is licit under US law […]”.

The launch in London today of the Final report of the Strategic Study on illegal artefact hunting (which also considers the trade in illicitly-obtained artifacts in Britain) seems to herald an important change in public attitudes and policies towards the British market in portable antiquities. For the first time in many years the British press came out with a barrage of unfavourable publicity for the irresponsible artefact hunter and collector. It seems that very soon the laws that US dealers find so welcome are going to change.

The report depicts the scale of the problem of looting as serious. It is clear that despite all the “liaison”, there remains a hard core of criminals who are intent on profiting from sales of stolen finds, often obtained at night during well planned and organised raids where anyone who stand in their way is threatened by physical violence. The report recognizes that there are limits to the degree public education will have an impact on this group of individuals and halt the damage they are doing to the archaeological heritage. As the result of its analyses, the report concludes that the motor for this activity is the current no-questions-asked market in portable antiquities which exists in Great Britain. The conclusion is that the most effective means of dealing with the problem of illegal artefact hunting in the UK is to close the loopholes that allow them to find a market for the commodities they produce to make the venture worthwhile. Removing the ability to profit financially will clearly reduce the motive for these criminals to operate.

Britain therefore will be seeking ways to regulate the local antiquities market, in particular the internet market in antiquities. In particular a vivid interested is being taken in the regulations reported here last year introduced on eBay in Germany, Austria and Switzerland which have shown that the auction house is prepared to take stricter action than has been the case so far in the UK. The Council for British Archaeology and Portable Antiquities Scheme are now suggesting that Britain should be pressing eBay to follow suit in the UK to close down the possibilities of using the portal as a means of trading illicitly acquired material.

At the launch of the Report today it was announced that under discussion is the possible introduction of a new criminal offence for a person to deal in such objects without being able to produce a clear modern provenance. This reform in attitudes and legislation would introduce the necessary transparency into dealings in cultural objects and ensure prospectively that persons dealt only in such objects with a recorded and substantiated background. We look forward to subsequent developments.
photo: Black market coins

When will US eBay follow suit?

According to the Museum Security Network posting “eBay Cancels Auctions of Ancient Coins” German eBay has put into practice the policies it announced this past July.

A translation of the German policies in the above posting indicates “It is forbidden to offer archeological findings whose lawful acquisition and possession the supplier cannot prove on eBAY.” While SAFECORNER joins all those who applaud German eBay’s contribution to the effort to safeguard cultural heritage, a question lingers: What about US eBay?

A search on US eBay today 11.26 AM (EST) under “ancient coins” yielded more than 7,300 results.


1) How many of these coins would be deleted if the German eBay policies were applied in the US?

2) If eBay in other countries will take the steps to help regulate the trade in antiquities, why not the US?

The US government continues to contribute to the international effort to stem looting with import restrictions, isn’t it time for the private sector to also step up its efforts? Let’s hope that US eBay will take the lead.

Ivory tower passivity

A week ago there was good news in conservation circles which in the view of some of us has potential significance for the antiquities trade. An announcement was made that since a lot of fresh material was dishonestly being passed off as old ivory, from the new year a major Internet auction portal was banning the sale of objects ivory altogether. This was a recognition that the poaching is directly encouraged by the ease with which illicit products can be misrepresented as legitimate and bought and sold globally. In this the Internet auction and sale sites play a major role – the campaign slogan called it “killing by keystrokes”. The parallels between the unregulated antiquities market and the dismembering of the world’s archaeological record as a source of collectables for entertainment and profit is clear.
In a blog posting last week I asked where are the archaeological and heritage lobby groups insisting that the same sales outlets “take the same sort of measures to protect the world’s archaeological heritage from being similarly dismembered?” Still sleeping it seems. In Britain for example organizations concerned with the conservation of the archaeological resource have been slow to take up the torch. The Council For British Archaeology has said nothing on the topic yet, the Institute For Archaeologists (as it now is) likewise, the Association of Local Government Archaeological Officers UK (ALGAO) also. From past history RESCUE seems unlikely to be concerned. The Portable Antiquities Scheme has so far made no public mention that it intends to pursue a similar policy for documentless portable antiquities. On the Britarch archaeological discussion forum, there has been virtual silence on the issue. Only one archaeological forum in Britain has raised it. On the British Archaeological Jobs & Resources (BAJR) forum Scottish pro-
collecting archaeologist David Connolly (‘BAJR’) calls for a ban on the sale of antiquities without properly documented provenance. He writes:

It seems that Ebay can ban sales if it comes under enough pressure… so what about antiquities? […] Come on EBay… you know you can… And no… I don’t mean NO sale… I mean properly regulated and transparent.

The point is however that its no use calling on eBay “come on eBay, you know you can” without a strong, persistent and loud lobbying campaign from those who care enough to mount one – like the conservationists fighting for the elephant. Would British archaeologists actually lobby for this, or are they content to leave alone the thoroughly disreputable state of the home antiquities market for fear of alienating the “metal detectorists” who currently sometimes bring them finds to look at?

At the moment it is independent organizations like SAFE and Heritage Action in the UK which are actively calling for something to be done, and professional archaeological organizations like those mentioned above are sitting back passively almost as if they are waiting for the fuss about portable antiquities collecting to stop. Where are the successors of the campaigning archaeologists of the so-called “Rescue Years”? (Germany): New Rules on the Selling of Archaeological Materials

A new policy for the selling of archaeological materials on (Germany) went into effect on July 1, 2008 (Press Release from “Neuer eBay-Grundsatz zum Handel mit archäologischen Funden,” 1 July 2008). A link in the press release provides full details on the new rules (“Grundsatz zu archäologischen Funden“).

The new policy defines “archaeological finds” as follows:

“An archaeological find is an object of historical, artistic or scientific importance, which laid for a time in the ground or under water.”

“Ein archäologischer Fund ist ein Objekt von geschichtlicher, künstlerischer oder wissenschaftlicher Bedeutung, der vorübergehend im Boden oder unter Wasser ruhte.”

It continues in providing non-exclusive examples of certain objects covered by the new policy, which include:

  • coins (Münzen)
  • weapons (Waffen)
  • grave goods (Grabbeigaben)
  • ceramics (Keramik)
  • jewelry (Schmuck)
  • tools (Werkzeuge)
  • sacral objects (sakrale Gegenstände).

Appended to the list are also items of geological and paleontological importance: fossilized animal and plant remnants and minerals (tierische und pflanzliche Überreste der Erdgeschichte (Fossilien); Mineralien).

The new policy requires sellers of antiquities to provide documentation (pedigree) for their auctions and to picture and describe it within the auction. For example, an object must have a document demonstrating that the find was reported to the ministry or have a history of being in the trade before going to auction at Ebay. Items originating from other countries must have a valid export license. For full details on each category of documentation and what the seller must provide (and how the seller can obtain such documents), see the new policy. (Germany) should be applauded for being more sensitive to the role it has played in the illicit trade in antiquities and taking proactive steps to diminish its use as a market for recently looted material.

Internet auction platforms, such as Ebay, play an important part in the trade of recently looted material. For a general essay see Chippindale, C. and D.W. J. Gill, “Online Auctions: A New Venue for the Antiquities Market,” Culture Without Context 9.

Cross-Posted at Numismatics and Archaeology: “ (Germany): New Rules on the Selling of Archaeological Materials