eBay may turn household junk into online treasure, but archaeologists held their breaths in horrified anticipation when the site first launched over a decade ago thinking that the illegal artifacts market would surely explode in a frenzy of looting.

Now the same archaeologists conclude that the online auction site has had a very different impact on their field. Looting ancient sites turns out to be less profitable than just churning out the fakes and hawking them on eBay.

“For most of us, the Web has forever distorted the antiquities trafficking market in a positive way,” said Charles “Chip” Stanish, an archaeologist at UCLA and an international expert on Andean archaeology.

If that didn’t quite compute, consider the numbers. Stanish first found about a 50-50 ratio of real artifacts to fakes when he began tracking eBay’s stock of antiquities related to his field. The fake relics jumped to 95 percent of the online inventory just five years later – and now their quality has improved so much that even Stanish has a hard time telling them apart from the real goods.

It sounds like a pain, but archaeologists consider it a blessing. Whole villages in certain parts of the world have gone from treasure hunting to manufacturing knockoffs. The resulting flood of copies has actually increased risks of buying genuine artifacts and lowered overall prices, further discouraging the casual looter.

Stanish visited workshops in Peru and Bolivia to talk with artisans about how they reproduce pottery, and also tracked eBay listings of antiquities originating from a variety of other places.

“Chinese, Bulgarian, Egyptian, Peruvian and Mexican workshops are now producing fakes at a frenetic pace,” Stanish wrote in a paper that’s detailed in the May/June issue of Archaeology.

Two issues hover on the horizon. First, fakes have become so technologically sophisticated that authentication has become a minefield, even for experts.

Stanish suspects that thirty percent of eBay’s “antiquities” are obvious fakes, and a mere five percent are genuine. That leaves the rest in the ‘ambiguous’ category, where even Stanish admits to being duped on occasion in shops that sell both looted and fake items.
Second, authentication technology will eventually catch up, just as it has helped protect real currency and identify art forgeries. That could leave prospective artifact collectors very unhappy to discover that their purportedly genuine pieces are less-than-historical – which leads to the dampening of buyer enthusiasm.

As Stanish asked, “Who wants to spend $50,000 on an object ‘guaranteed’ to be ancient by today’s standards, when someone can come along in five years with a new technology that definitively proves it to be a fake?”