It is a while that I am chasing my Turkish friend Mixantik-Ebuyerrrr, who is selling his papyrus fragments and other merchandise via eBay since 2008. Although he likes to call himself Robert, we actually know that this is not his real name; soon or later we will delve into his interesting story. But never mind, today I’d like to talk about the e-commerce platform through which Robert and others can freely and easily offer their manuscripts and other antiquities for sale in a very convenient way. Convenient for buyers, sellers and above all for those who own the platform in question: eBay is listed 310 in the 2017 Fortune list of the 500 world leading companies. It is hard to quantify the overall amount of antiquities (licit and illicit, genuine and fake) which are exchanged through the platform, but to give you an idea of the size and profit margins, today there are 1,531 Egyptian antiquities and 3,974 antique (sic) manuscripts on sale through the UK platform, only to mention objects at the centre of my interest.
So let us consider the case of a responsible collector looking for papyri on eBay. Among the fragments recently on sale there have been two offered by luck_button, a user active since 26 September 2003 and based, as my friend Robert, in Turkey. As you can see from the screenshot above and checking the link (papyrus 1, papyrus 2), the seller specifies with a bizarre sense of pride that there is no provenance or document on any of the two. I do not want to give my expertise on the scraps, so I am afraid but I won’t tell you anything about their date, writing, if they are genuine, etc. I am just concentrating on matters of legality and ethics, which should come first.
Turkey has ratified the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property of 1970 in 1981 and as a consequence has put very strict legislation in place for the protection of its cultural heritage. The main law for the protection of antiquities was issued in 1983; antiquities are ownership of the State, their commerce is illegal and penalties are harsh. It is fresh news that a British tourist trying to bring back ancient coins, which he found while snorkelling, is now detained in Turkey. In our case, however, the papyrus fragments are not from Turkey, but are originally from Egypt; their legal status could seem ambiguous. Nevertheless, since Mr luck_button is openly stating that they are unprovenanced and there are no documents on the acquisition history of the fragments, what is happening has high probability to be illegal and the fragments look like illicit fragments in transit through Turkey. Moreover, the seller candidly explains that he sends the merchandise through the standard Turkish post, as he has clearly done so far on the basis of his trade-history: what about customs duties? In a world where nations seem to have the less and less resources to control borders, it has become quite simple to send things around without any systematic check on the contents of packages. Never mind issues of conservation etc.
So in the light of this far from reassuring picture, a responsible collector would certainly avoid buying the fragments and would try, instead, to contact eBay in order to alert them on the situation. Here problems start. Any item on sale could be reported through a form that you should fill according to some pre-existent, standard criteria. In fact, none of them really fit to antiquities. Anyway, I made an experiment filling the form as best as I could few days ago. Nothing has happened and in the meanwhile the fragments have been sold to two anonymous irresponsible collectors: one for 512 and the other for 141 dollars.
e-Bay policies on the sale of antiquities varies from one country to another, in view of the different legislation regulating the market and approaches towards cultural heritage protection. For instance, eBay Germany policy openly forbids the selling of antiquities without accompanying documents regarding their acquisition history . The policy of eBay US seems less restrictive, or at least not so explicit, and gives some specific guidelines only regarding Native American cultural heritage. As for the UK, to my knowledge the only attempt made to regulate the nature of the antiquities sold on eBay concerns exclusively UK archaeological finds. This seems a narrow minded, nation-focussed approach for a country with a rich legal (and illegal) patrimony of antiquities originating from other countries on its territory, as a result of its imperial past, and a thriving antiquities market more in general.
As an academic who feels responsible of the objects I study, I had been able in the past to get in contact directly with the eBay policy office and they usually act quickly when some bids are flagged as potentially illegal. But it is clear that more proactive and structural measures should be put in place to tackle the problem.
The reality is that everything seems allowed because too many collectors/dealers, as the two who purchased the papyri at the centre of this post, do not respect the laws and ethics underpinning such exchanges (before you even start with a pointless counter-argument, I am afraid to say that no, darling, eventual ignorance of the laws does not excuse them). Moreover, eBay policies enforcement seems inefficient at best, and police active control is also low, even more so in the UK where the Art and Antiques Unit seems to be under threat of closure. Despite all the rhetoric on heritage preservation, and the amount of public money put in various programs, the truth is that this kind of everyday unregulated and unethical (when not illegal) market is slowly killing our cultural heritage in the open and apparently with the consent of everyone implied in the transactions.
I learnt a lot from reading J. Anglim Kreder, J. Nintrup, “Antiquity meets the modern age: eBay’s potential criminal liability for counterfeit and stolen international antiquity sale” Journal of Law, Technology & the Internet 5 (2014) 143–178 and N. Brodie, “The Internet Market in Antiquities” in F. Desmarais ed. Countering Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods: The Global Challenge of Protecting the World’s Heritage Paris: ICOM 2015.