the local eBayers and craftsmen can make more money cranking out cheap fakes than they can by spending days or weeks digging around looking for the real thing. It is true that many former and potential looters lack the skills to make their own artifacts. But the value of their illicit digging decreases every time someone buys a “genuine” Moche pot for $35, plus shipping and handling. In other words, because the low-end antiquities market has been flooded with fakes that people buy for a fraction of what a genuine object would cost, the value of the real artifacts has gone down as well, making old-fashioned looting less lucrative. The value of real antiquities is also impacted by the increased risk that the object for sale is a fake. The likelihood of reselling an authentic artifact for more money is diminished each year as more fakes are produced.
I’m glad that the market for forgeries is making looting less attractive in a win-win, mostly nonpunitive way. But does the change really require a continuing supply of suckers who believe you can buy authenticated artifacts on eBay for a fraction of the otherwise-going price? I hope not, because that would eventually mean looting will start up again. My theory is that at least some of the buyers are in the “dollar and a dream” category — they’re paying an inflated price, compared to an obviously modern piece, for something that could conceivably be authentic, and if it’s not they’re not out a huge pile of money (as they would if they bought an undetected fake from a dealer). They also have a very nice little artifact.
As always, these kinds of reproductions/forgeries raise the question of what it means for something to be authentic. Made with the same materials, essentially similar methods, the same shapes, decorated with variations of the same iconography, just not actually as old or dug out of the same ground. Sure, you can argue that different thoughts were going through the minds of the people making them, but that’s probably romanticizing pre-colombian life.
It might be interesting to compare the evolution of the market for pre-colombian fakes on eBay to the evolution of the market for Pueblo pottery in New Mexico. Lots of stuff that started out being seen as cheap knockoffs of the “real” ancient finds has become recognized as art in its own right, and the people who made it as artists continuing and reviving cultural traditions. In some ways the work has become even more valuable because (a little like Menard’s Quixote) it is produced by people schooled to think modern thoughts.