eBay-The Robber’s Den

I have always been interested in the trade of illicit antiquities and did a research paper last semester on the nature of looting and theft of artifacts within the United States. However the artifacts stolen from American public lands constitute only a backwater in an international black market that ranks only behind drugs and weapons. My interest was piqued when Dr. Watrall mentioned the availability of ancient Chinese artifacts on eBay.  Curious to see if this was true, I went on a search to see what artifacts may have found their way on to the market.

To my dismay there was an entire company specializing in ancient Chinese jade artifacts. Jadekylin was offering its customers a wide assortment of statuettes, hairpins, amulets, coins, and cups. The pricing ranged anywhere from over two-hundred dollars to less than ten. The company provided no documentation of authenticity or context of their artifacts, stating only that they came from either the countryside or private collections. Recognizing that these could very well be fakes, I decided to see if I could find any artifacts pertaining to some of the culture phases we had been studying.

To my dismay the search bar completed my search for Liangzhu antiques. Among the over one-hundred Liagnzhu artifacts for sale were clear examples of the Cong and Bi jade objects we had seen in class. My search for the Longshan brought up a similar array of artifacts for sale. I hoped that these were all forgeries being passed off as authentic pieces, but I knew that such a lucrative market could not be so easily contained.

Not having a clear idea of what the looting and smuggling situation was in China, I decided to see if I could find out some data on China’s role in the world market of stolen cultural heritage. China as it turns out is one of the counties being most severely targeted by the black market. Many of the looters are poor citizens who are looking for a way to supplement their family’s minimal income. The artifacts from one tomb can fetch a price equal to one year’s pay for a poor farmer. Others are professionals who make looting their business.

Both are part of increasing global demand for exotic artifacts, especially from Western counties like the United States. In the past decade over 200 auction houses, specializing in antiquities have sprung up in China. In 2003 it was estimated that over 220,000 Chinese archaeological sites had been stripped of their artifacts. Some of these will fetch prices well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. One top archaeologist estimated that 80-90% of the artifacts on the market were illegally obtained. That meant that most of the jade objects I could have easily bought on eBay had been unlawfully taken from their home nation.

While efforts to curb the trade are being set in place, the pandemic of looting will not be halted unless their is a more aggressive attempt to arrest the high end clienteles that are feeding the growing market. Until these private collectors are stopped, the demand for stolen cultural heritage will only continue to intensify.

Here is a link to a Time Magazine article that I used to get some of my data.http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,517790-1,00.html

2 thoughts on “eBay-The Robber’s Den

  1. Mel Walker

    I knew that ebay had a rather dubious reputation for the legitimacy and legality of their items. When my bike was stolen, the police told me to keep close tabs on the new listings just in case it popped up there. But I didn’t realize it was possible to buy artifacts on there! I’m surprised this is allowed by ebay’s terms of agreement. You make a good point that many of the objects may be fakes. Without an extensive academic background in the subject, it would probably be difficult to determine whether an item is authentic or not. It is also pretty easy to lie about a product online, or send a different item than what’s promised. But with the sheer volume of items on the site and the prevalence of looting and stealing ancient artifacts, it is likely that at least some are authentic.

    You also make a good point with aggressive action needing to be taken against the people buying the artifacts. While the looting itself is obviously a crime that needs to be stopped, it would not be nearly as appealing to the looters if they lacked a good market to sell to. If buying stolen artifacts became more riskier, it would begin to outweigh the appeal if owning the item. The black-market situation is a bit of tricky one. As you mention, some of the sellers of these items don’t have other options to make money. While this does not justify selling important artifacts illegally, it does make the topic more complex.

  2. kalleksc

    I found your post very interesting to read and was also encouraged to do my own research when Dr. Watrall mentioned how ancient Chinese artifacts were available on eBay. I was also surprised to find out how easily available these artifacts were online. It is really sad that these historic objects are looted from their resting places and are never properly documented. Though I find it despicable, I do not blame poor citizens for looting due to the need to support their families because they are not able to with on their minimal income. However, those others who are professionals who make the practice of looting their business are disgraceful. They are making a profit out of stealing from the people of the area they are looting and are not allowing them to learn as much about their culture as possible. But I feel that the people who are really at fault are the ones who are willing to pay for these stolen goods for their own enjoyment. The numbers you found for the amount of auction houses specializing in these items are appalling. The fact that in 2004 it was estimated that over 220,000 Chinese archaeological sites had been stripped of their artifacts is incredible and show how this is a major problem in China. There needs to be more regulation in the market and governments need to be stricter about cracking down on those who sell these illegally obtained artifacts. Hopefully in the future the percentage of these artifacts on the market will reduce from 80-90% to a more reasonable number.

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