Sunday, 3 December 2017

The dilemma of buying and selling archaeological artifacts online

Hi everybody,

I was reading this interesting article on Business Insider that discussed the authenticity and provenience of archaeological artifacts being sold on eBay and Amazon. This highlighted a number of issues that I wanted to briefly touch upon.

The first one is whether artifacts should be sold at all. As an archaeology student, I am certainly biased in my views regarding this topic. I think all artifacts should be owned by public organizations, so that all members of society have the ability to learn from these artifacts, instead of private collectors, where almost no members of the public will have access to it. It is because of this reason that the tone of the article bothered me, as it was advocating for the ability of online buyers to purchase authentic artifacts. I do understand, however, that my views regarding who should own artifacts are idealistic and not very realistic. In a capitalist society, there are always going to be people that will pay a premium to keep a piece of history for themselves, and as such, a market exists for these people.

This brings me to my second point, which is the issue of the entire article, that of authenticity and provenience. The article does highlight a common issue of people who create fake artifacts and also looters, who illegally remove and sell artifacts from sites. Regardless of who owns an artifact, the issue of imitated artifacts is a problem, since it can lead to a misunderstanding of the past. Looting is also a major problem, it removes an artifact from the archaeological context necessary to understand it, and gives it no provenience. These are both serious issues that bring me to my third issue, which is whose responsibility is it to determine the authenticity of an artifact.

Certainly, when an individual or institution purchases a historical artifact they should at all times be wary of the provenience and authenticity of an artifact. However, the onus should be on  the retailer, even large online retailers such as Amazon, to investigate the authenticity of an artifact. In a non-online environment, a retailer is obligated to ensure the item is valid. A good example of this would be art dealers who often act in an intermediary capacity between a seller and a buyer. This is a similar capacity to that of Amazon. Overall it seems to me that websites such as Amazon or eBay need more accountability.

What do you guys think? Who is accountable for determining the veracity or authenticity of artifacts? Is it even appropriate to sell archeological artifacts in the first place? If not, is there anything the archeological community could do to limit this practice? Is there anything governments could do?

I look forward to hearing your responses.



Hillary Kiazyk said...

Hi Alex! I found your post really interesting. Have you by chance ever checked out the website sothebys? ( they are a private auction website that sell artifacts much in the same way you talk about EBay and Amazon above. The thing that I find really interesting about the students page is the obvious demographic targeting. It is intended for a market of very wealthy people. Now I can't say for sure (as I have no experience with this myself) but I believe it isn't uncommon for wealthy people to buy up choice pieces or start building their own personal collections. This to me seems a little strange but it also reminded me of the Huffer and Graham piece that we read for class today. I think in some cases the collection of these artifacts by people who wish to own that "piece of history" is part of a "curiosity" "curio" or "oddity" subculture. This all seems very strange and quite sad to me because while some may think their collection of these pieces creates a personal museum for them it is counter productive because these pieces could have been looted, or worse grave robbed, and context lost as a result. To find all of this archaeological material all you need to do is pick a key word and you will likely turn over hundreds of results! It is a bit disconcerting. I used the word "funerary" (just to find the most controversial postings) and it turned up funerary urns, sculptures and many other posts of materials likely taken from grave contexts. It is really strange to see a vessel that would have held someone's ashes priced at 100,000 USD... I agree with you there is certainly a problem here that hasn't yet been addressed with any legal or ethical framework. To me it also seems wrong to put a price on heritage (but I agree we certainly have a bias).

I don't know how anyone would go about resolving these issues. The people who are likely doing a lot of the buying in many cases have a great deal of financial power and would probably fight to keep things the way they are. Clearly there are many out there that do not share our point of view.

The waters get even muddier when you start talking about descendant communities who do not want to preserve the artifacts and would prefer instead to have the money. From our perspective we get caught in the middle of two arguments "preserve EVERYTHING" and "the descendant communities SHOULD have more control over their history!".Do you believe that people who would prefer to have money over their ancestral artifacts should have the right to sell them? Is there any middle ground?

Thanks for this great post!

Jeff Grieve said...

Hi Alex,

Thanks for your post. You raise an interesting question about accountability in the context of (authentic) reproductions. I think we've already agreed that the concept of authenticity is problematic - Authentic from whose perspective, when etc ? Accountability might become entangled in the subjectivity of authenticity as well. It seems to me that issues of power and control are also likely to enter into discussions on accountability for authentic reproduction. For example, I think we would likely all agree that Indigenous groups should be able to gauge the quality of an "authentic" reproduction of their heritage - but can that practically be achieved? I would suggest that while it is not "right", the counterfeiter/crook who prints counterfeit bills is "accountable" for the quality of his/her reproductions ... so long as they are good enough, they pass for real? But getting back to heritage reproduction, I think you raise a good question and one that is not easily answered. Perhaps others in the class have different ideas.

Thanks for sharing.


Arwen Johns said...

I find this to be a particularly sticky problem for many reasons, so I'll just highlight a few of my thoughts on the issue. Firstly, I wonder if private collections could have the potential to be good things, given the right constraints and monitoring. I think the amount of money that is spent procuring objects by wealthy individuals is shocking, and likely a good indicator that even with increased government sanctions and laws to protect the buying the selling of heritage items, these individuals would have the means and desire to purchase objects anyways. If anything, more legal consequences will only serve to push the already shady world of antiquities trading further underground, making it even harder to monitor and possibly driving prices up further. I wonder if a system could be devised where individuals purchasing objects could be mandated to report their purchases (although I'm not sure to whom) so that a record could be kept regarding the provenience and current location and state of preservation for artifacts. Museum budgets are at times strained and storage is always an issue, so perhaps having certain pieces in known locations with private collectors is part of a solution for these problems.