This article is the first in a two-part series by C. Wong
MA Student, University of Pavia
People have been captivated by history since an idea of the past could be conceptualised. Over time this interest only grew with different societies developing various ways to interact and connect with it. In Europe, this fascination reached a peak between the seventeenth and nineteenth centuries. In the age of Grand Tours, many Europeans travelled to the Mediterranean and the Near East to get closer to the ideas and ideals they had of bygone eras. At the same time, they also took countless artefacts back home. Many of these went to personal collections, while a fair few others became the founding compendiums of some of Europe’s most esteemed museums, like Oxford University’s own Pitts-River Museum (Rethinking Pitt-Rivers 2013). Artefacts have always had a history of being collected and traded, but what is significant about the Age of the Grand Tours is how it cemented a new period of this practice. With interests in the past at an all-time high, the growing number of European travellers—and the rate at which they had seized relics— soared. Any sincere thought about what was actually happening, what they were doing, or how they were doing it, fell to the wayside. In frank terms, visitors pilfered to their hearts’ content, and there was no real ethical consideration of their actions. Moreover, while a fascination with the past may have given birth to the travels and collections, once people saw a profit to be made, that became the priority, and many more objects were simply taken without a trace; their contexts are now lost forever.
The quandary that is the modern world of antiquities dealings is a direct culmination of the long-term effects of these past practices in combination with issues that stem from the present era: specifically, the issues brought on by the internet. To quote archaeologist and professor Charles Stanish, “My greatest fear was that the Internet would democratize antiquities trafficking, which previously had been a wealthy person’s vice, and lead to widespread looting” (University of California - Los Angeles 2009). Stanish made this statement in 2009, expressing how he felt when eBay had launched a decade earlier. Since then, it is clear his wariness was not misplaced, and he is not alone in this sentiment. As will be touched upon below, a common misconception of the illicit antiquities trade in the age of the internet may be that it must happen over the dark web. However, with the rise of the internet came the birth of social media (i.e. Facebook, WhatsApp and Telegram), online shopping sites (i.e. eBay and Catawiki), and even online venues from more traditional auction houses (i.e. Christie’s and TimeLine Auctions). Channels for the antiquities trade opened exponentially, and it has never been easier to find and purchase artefacts.
Here, this paper will first examine three areas of the internet where artefacts are bought and sold, focusing on specific examples, – namely: Facebook for social media sites, eBay and Catawiki for online shopping, and Christie’s and TimeLine Auctions for online venues made by auction houses of art and objects d’art. These areas represent key issues that have risen from (or have been exacerbated by) the internet. Next, I will look into two recent world events – the COVID pandemic and Russia’s war on Ukraine – to highlight the unprecedented way that the antiquities market can also benefit in times of chaos, again, because of the internet. These examples and events also represent what is commonly thought of as “different sides” of the trade: one that is ethical and above board and another that is underground and shady. By presenting them here, the hope is to not only highlight the repercussions of the rise of the internet to the antiquities trade, but to see how the internet has further blurred the line that already existed between lawful and illicit in this so-called market.
Social Media: Facebook – Connections & networks
It is a common myth that antiquities traffickers conduct their business over the dark web or other more nefarious and hidden channels. However, according to the non-profit research organisation RAND, which conducted an open-source study on the illicit artefact trade in 2020, “technology used in the looted antiquities trade is mostly unsophisticated” (Sargent et al. 2020, p. XIII). Their analyses of dark web platforms found little to no evidence for the sales of antiquities. Instead, secure messaging applications like WhatsApp and Viber are exploited “to coordinate sales and streamline communications within existing networks” (Sargent et al. 2020, p. XIII). Deep web platforms, such as Facebook, also had little evidence for the direct sales of artefacts (Sargent et al. 2020, p. XIII); nevertheless, it is sites like Facebook that are the foundation of these “existing networks,” which brings us to our first key issue.
Although Facebook Marketplace was introduced in 2016 for users to market their own items, it is Facebook’s “Groups” feature that has been the most instrumental in the expansion of antiquities trafficking networks, as it allows users “to create and control a contained network of individuals with ‘shared interests’” (Al-Azm and Paul 2019, p. 6). In the eyes of participants in the illicit trade, Facebook’s function as a social network is its most lucrative element and the reason they flock to the site. The ability to create networks is significant because, although another common belief is that antiquities trafficking happens with other illicit markets, (such as drugs or weapons trafficking), and is conducted in more hierarchical systems and networks by gangs or smuggling rings, this is not the whole picture. RAND researchers interviewed several dealers and smugglers from Iraq and Turkey who described “a decentralized network of individuals who worked irregularly as antiquities traffickers” (Sargent et al. 2020, p. 41). Meaning these sellers were “small-time smugglers and economic opportunists” whose typical trafficked goods were mundane items such as household objects, electronics and food products (Sargent et al. 2020, p. 41). The informants also reported that the demand for goods is diffuse, the supply chain quite irregular and the market very decentralised. With this sporadic trade dynamic, these individual and part-time illicit traders and looters have no consistent system to offload their goods and require help in finding potential buyers. Facebook attracts such individuals because it is an advertising space for networking as much as it is a place for selling goods (Votey 2022, p. 675). Facebook Groups are ubiquitous and broad-reaching, allowing those with a ‘shared interest’ in selling and buying antiquities (which can be a mix ranging from average citizens to violent extremists) a safe space to interact and communicate “efficiently and discretely” (Al-Azm and Paul 2019, p. 6).
While many of the antiquity-themed Facebook groups worldwide have no obvious affiliation with illegally excavated, looted or stolen items, both the 2020 RAND study and the 2019 Antiquities Trafficking and Heritage Anthropology Research (ATHAR) Project found their analysis to suggest Arabic- and (to a lesser degree) Turkish-speaking groups “occupy a broader niche, offering different information and addressing different types of users than those in Europe and North America” (Sargent et al. 2020, pp. 53-54). Particularly, these groups were observed to not only advertise illicit artefacts for sale, but members within would often openly discuss methods for finding and looting archaeological sites (Votey 2022, p. 676). The ATHAR Project conducted a study on 95 Arabic-speaking Facebook groups in which they investigated members as well as how they operate. However, the project most significantly highlights how Facebook is misused by looters in ways that allow them to thrive (Al-Azm and Paul 2019, p. 9). Black-market dealers exploit Facebook’s algorithm in a way that seems deceptively expert. In reality, such exploitation is all too simple. Facebook was built to connect people based on the similarities of user profiles. This simple factor has a great many flaws and loopholes of which it is easy to take advantage. For instance, (even though it sounds like a description of what they do), in one case, ATHAR researchers found an individual who has listed their workplace, word-for-word, as “trade in antiquities, artefacts, and antiques” (Al-Azm and Paul 2019, p. 9, Fig. 8). Despite the fact that no such workplace exists, Facebook still creates a business page for it. This is evidently problematic. Not only do individuals who openly declare that they traffic antiquities, not have authorities questioning their work, but they can more easily associate with others who do the same. Similarly, once a user joins a specific type of group, other similar groups will be suggested to them. Facebook’s algorithm, essentially “facilitates the ability of traffickers and criminals, even extremists, to rapidly expand their network and connect with others engaged in similar criminal or extremist activities with little to no effort” (Al-Azm and Paul 2019, p. 9).
Online shopping: eBay & Catawiki – Forgeries & trust
eBay is an interesting and unprecedented example, as it represents one of the first major online shopping sites and remains still the epicentre of internet sales, controlling virtually 95% of all online auctions (Kreder and Nintrup 2014, p. 144). Given that, it is fair to assess that the influence of eBay on the antiquities market is not insignificant, though—interestingly—not in the way one would expect. Doing a quick search on eBay.com for artefacts, one can see that anything imaginable is sold there: from prehistoric arrowheads and cuneiform tablets to Roman coins and bronze helmets. While considering whether or not such objects were stolen, the nearly 122,000 items listed in the ‘Antiquities & Other Antiques’ category on eBay also signpost another issue: authenticity. According to Stanish, of all the antiquities and antique objects, 30% are easily fakes or replicas, 5% can be believed to be genuine, while the remaining 65% account for what he labels “ambiguous objects” (Stanish 2009, p. 60). Thus, stolen goods are not the largest issue with eBay; instead “illicit antiquities sellers fell victim to crowding out by another criminal activity: The sale of forged illicit antiquities” (Votey 2022, p. 672). eBay has opened the doors to more high-quality forged objects, which has caused a rapid rise in these “ambiguous objects,” as it has become more difficult to discern between what is real, fake, or looted (Stanish 2009, p. 60). As a consequence, fraud has become a large issue. In addition, the rise of ambiguous objects has only made the problem of protecting cultural heritage that much more difficult. Not only is it more problematic to identify real pieces, but it is arguably the potential authenticity of these artefacts that is the biggest concern. Since there is now a general sense among the public to be more wary with regards to the authenticity of items on eBay, less care is being taken both by buyers as well as any authorities to ensure that what is being sold is real, much less whether or not said objects were acquired legally. All too often, cultural items slip through the cracks in this way. This begs the question as to whether, be they legally acquired or not, such cultural items should be sold so haphazardly. The more forgeries are bought on eBay, the more the quality of forgeries increases; modern forgeries are now at a point at which they can deceive even experts (Stanish 2009, p. 66). eBay does not provide effective communication or interaction methods between sellers and buyers to help establish authenticity. As such, along with the ease of creating new seller accounts, forgers have ample opportunities to find one-off chances to deceive and pawn off their fakes (Votey 2022, p. 673).
In a sense, eBay represents a different side of the online market when compared to Facebook: it has no personal networking features and favours the anonymity allowed by its sales. But both sites equally provide a necessary amenity (convenience) as well as an enormous audience who can potentially represent anyone from customers to partners or from looters to forgers. Where Facebook facilitates the expansion of networks for looters, eBay provides forgers with an incredibly easily-accessible global marketplace, enabling the growth of counterfeit objects that increasingly weakens cultural protection efforts. Both sites make it all too easy for their platforms to be abused, which is why it may be surprising to discover that they do have user rules and guidelines against the trade and sale of artefacts. Facebook updated their Community Standards in 2020 to list historical artefacts as restricted goods that are not to be “bought, sold, traded, donated or gifted, or asked for” (Meta 2023). Among eBay’s policies, it states that looted objects are prohibited; artefacts must follow all government guidelines, be listed in the appropriate category and be authentic; moreover, replicas should state their status clearly in the listing title and description (eBay n.d.). Yet, despite these rules, the research studies as well as even a cursory glance at these sites demonstrate that, unfortunately, those guidelines and restrictions are no more than meaningless words.
The concept of ‘meaningless words’ is especially applicable in terms of the next example, which also shows that online shopping sites have issues which stretch even beyond the presence of undisclosed forgeries. Amongst the three areas examined by this paper, public opinion seems to put the most faith in auction houses and the least amount of faith in social media sites. Shopping sites, on the other hand, seem to operate somewhere in an in-between trust zone. The Dutch platform Catawiki (launched in 2008) is a site much like eBay; it is an online shopping hub where people can buy and sell almost anything from cars to wines and from sports memorabilia to books. Unlike eBay, however, Catawiki promotes itself as a curated marketplace specialising in more “hard-to-find” objects (Catawiki | About Catawiki, n.d.). Importantly, most unlike eBay, on one of Catawiki’s ‘help for sellers’ pages regarding ‘antiquities considered cultural goods’, it states that their “experts select each item to be listed in our auctions and aim to verify each lot’s provenance to ensure legally compliant trade” (Catawiki | Suitable items, n.d.). With the way the platform markets itself as “curated” by its own “experts”, it creates an air of authenticity in which users can trust. But should they? Several examples suggest that the answer is no.
First of all, fakes are seemingly just as rampant on Catawiki as they are on eBay. According to the detailed posts of one member of the Ancient Artefacts online forum on Groups.io, user “Renate” has been able to cast doubt on many lots that appear on Catawiki. Though having no archaeological expertise, as Renate personally states in each of their posts, the user is clearly an experienced artefact dealer, especially in fibulae. In their Catawiki notes posted regularly since June 2020, Renate has documented “questionable brooches” for each month, along with a suspected status of the item and a detailed and cited reasoning for the status given. Many of these suspicious listings have convincingly been marked as mislabelled, or even deemed fake by Renate. A notable example is lot no. 60034965 “Bronze Age Bronze hair knot brooch”, which emulates a kind of brooch that would have been worn in the hairs of high-status Bronze Age individuals and what is likely an attempted copy inspired by the “Lüneburg brooch of Hanover type” (Renate 2022b, pp. 6-7). However, the lot is likely a fake (unrealistic and poor craftsmanship) and seems, moreover, to be a part of a series of attempted forgeries of this type, as two other examples brooches of this same kind and style were sold on eBay.co.uk, albeit dated circa 500 BCE there (Renate 2022b, p. 6). See Figure 19.
Figure 19. a. Bronze fibula documented in Hoops (1913), the likely template which inspired the fakes | b. Image of the forged brooch found on Catawiki, listed as being from the Middle Bronze Age (1400-1300 BCE) | c & d. Images of the two forged brooches found on eBay.co.uk, listed as being from 500 BCE.
In a post made in October 2022, Renate also pointed out the unusual presence of certain items which appeared both on Catawiki as well as Violity (a Russian online market site, which is as dubious as the rest). Thus far, the Catawiki links to many of these listings have been taken down or deleted. However, one such example (no. 60240827 “Great Migration Period, Germanic tribes Bronze Ostrogothic Zoomorphic Brooch-Fibula with Four Ravens Heads in Openwork Technique & Two Dragon Heads”; https://www.catawiki.com/en/l/60240827) closed bidding in June 2022 and was not sold. See Figure 20. On Violity, the exact same fibula (on the right) was listed and sold in October 2020. All that was stated on Violity regarding provenance was “Location: Kharkiv” and (a detail presumably added after the item was sold) “Sending lot to: Ukraine” (https://violity.com/105913607-fibuly-penkovskaya-kultura). What is peculiar is that the description on Catawiki (again, for the exact same item!) states, “Purchased by the current owner in 2016 in Austria, Wien. Collected Since: 1990’s. Previous owners history: Old Austrian Private Collection. The Seller can prove that the lot was obtained legally, provenance statement seen by Catawiki.” Aside from the clear contradiction of these details, even if everything were true, the question which remains is why the Catawiki description did not include a history in Eastern Europe, as documented by the listing on Violity. For something that was so easily found online, how could their “team of in-house experts” have missed this? Though the links to the other listings are no longer available, “Renate” has provided documented proof of the same troubling issue for several other objects that have appeared on both Catawiki and Violity with inconsistent information (Renate 2022a).
Figure 20. A comparison of the bronze brooches posted on Violity and Catawiki.
The Catawiki case exemplifies the abuse of trust that is rampant in the antiquities market. The platform claims that “your trust is extremely important to us,” so their “experts carefully select and verify the special objects that are put up for auction on Catawiki… to ensure their authenticity” (Catawiki | Help Center, n.d.) and “aim to verify each lot’s provenance to ensure legally compliant trade” (Catawiki | Suitable items, n.d.). Yet, in the next breath, they shunt responsibility to sellers and buyers, as they “are expected to take all reasonable steps to guarantee the lawfulness of what they buy and sell” (Catawiki | Suitable items, n.d.). In this case, it is unclear if the job of their team of alleged 200 experts (Jones et al. 2020, p. 27) is to only double-check the information given to them. But with the few examples here (which barely scratch the surface of Catawiki’s problems) the dubious listings that have gotten through this team of experts is alarming. From the way the platform is presented, it is clear that Catawiki attempts to present itself as a different sort of platform which is both more high-end and more auction house-like. Perhaps their intent is to cash in on the goodwill and trust afforded to auction houses by seeming to present themselves in a similar manner. The irony is that, on one hand, like Facebook and eBay, Catawiki has shown that, despite words, guidelines, and countless declarations of working to protect cultural heritage, it does not take much study to show that online platforms do not care to bear responsibility or even to enforce their own rules. Many users break these guidelines daily without repercussions. However, on the other hand, as we will see in the second instalment, this behaviour is not unprecedented. Catawiki (and by extension, Facebook and eBay), is also exactly like an auction house, though probably not in the way they intended.
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