Ebay’s Role in the Destruction of Cultural Property

Posted on April 9, 2009

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imagesThe destruction of aboriginal cultural property has taken the spotlight in, Treasures looted and sold online, in the Sydney Morning Herald.  Illicitly obtained artifacts from Australia, New South Wales in particular, are showing up on Ebay for sale.

This isn’t the first we’ve heard of Ebay in the sale of illicitly cultural property.  James L. Brubaker of Montana stole rare books and pages of manuscripts from libraries all over Washington state.  A librarian sleuthed and watched Ebay knowing that his materials may show up there.  When they did, he mounted a little sting operation by getting some friends out east to buy the materials, only to confirm they were his own.  The 73-year-old Brubaker was found with 1,000 stolen rare books in his home and (to my recollection) something like 20,000 loose pages.

Ebay is a glorious thing for selling one of a kind items, opening up a client base to the internet-enabled world.  However, that means that to ensure all those objects are legal requires extensive policing.  Policing that some would argue rises to the level of impossible.  Ebay can ban the sale of organs, because all organs look the same, and can be easily identified (even by a computer).  However, an old pot looks exactly the same as a stolen old pot.  Ebay makes far too much money to consider banning all items which may be stolen.  Realistically, they couldn’t sell car stereos, or media (CDs, DVDs), anything which has a propensity towards being stolen goods.

It’s not a problem I expect remedied any time soon, but its an interesting one to keep an eye on nonetheless.

Hat tip to Derek Fincham.

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Posted in: Archaeology Law