This month on eBay.co.uk I have been watching Halaf terracotta figurines. And there are a lot of them. Halaf figurines were produced from the seventh through to sixth centuries BC in what is today the territory of Iraq and Syria and immediately adjacent areas of neighbouring countries. They take their name from the archaeological site of Tell Halaf in NE Syria where they were first discovered. They appear on ICOM’s Emergency Red List of Syrian Cultural Objects at Risk.
Between 27 November 2015 and 17 February 2016, seven sellers between them sold 60 figurines for the total sum of £6099. The highest priced figurine sold for £720, the lowest for £12. The average price was £102. Six of the sellers were based in the UK, all in England. One seller, selling only one figurine, was based in the USA. The breakdown for the English sellers was:
Seller 1 sold 29 figurines, with minimal description and no indication of provenance.
Seller 2 sold 11 figurines, with minimal description and no indication of provenance.
Seller 3 sold five figurines, described as ‘Indus Valley’, with a provenance of ‘UK reliable supplier’. The seller also noted that that ‘we support Eastern trade embargo unconditionally’.
Seller 4 sold one figurine, with minimal description and no indication of provenance.
Seller 5 sold six figurines, with minimal description and no indication of provenance.
Seller 6 sold two figurines, with minimal description and no indication of provenance.
Seller 7 sold five figurines, described as ‘British found’ (!).
Questions have been asked about the authenticity of Halaf figurines. Recent seizures in Lebanon have documented how genuine and fake objects from Syria are found mixed together  and the appearance of fake figurines on eBay would not be a surprise. As long ago as 2005, the on-line collectors’ community was aware of large numbers of Halaf figurines being sold on eBay, and believed that many if not most of them were fake.
So well before 2011, eBay was awash with material that might have originated in ancient or modern Syria. The figurines being sold on eBay last December and in January and February might have been in circulation for years, or passed out of Syria a few months earlier. Who is to know? That is the gray market we talk about. But it is a very dark gray one. Fake or genuine, at least one law will have been broken on a figurine’s journey to eBay, even if it was only the ‘Eastern trade embargo’. The police seem powerless to act. The sellers are located outside the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan Police’s specialised art and antiques squad. The low prices of the figurines (and other objects) being sold are probably not enough to warrant serious attention from increasingly stretched provincial police forces. Thus the figurines are being sold openly with knowing or unknowing impunity. There is no need here to postulate sinister hi-tech networks shifting material around the world on the Darknet. The suburban reality is one of open sale on eBay from the garages and attics of middle England.
What else do these eBay sales tell us? Well, for a start, the figurines are selling, and selling well. Customers quite clearly are either unaware of or unconcerned about their origins. Funding Daesh? Who knows or cares? Perhaps buyers honestly believe that the figurines have been out of Syria for decades. Perhaps they do not know that the figurines might originate in Syria or Iraq. After all, none of the sellers advertised the fact. Not one seller mentioned Syria as a possible country of origin. Perhaps buyers are unconcerned simply because the sums of money involved are so small. From what we know of the financial structure of the trade, for a £102 figurine only about £1-2 would end up in the hands of the person making or finding it. But aggregated, these small sums of money add up. Perhaps they are enough to make the trade worthwhile. Alternatively, perhaps these small and inexpensive objects are the residue of larger enterprises, separated off and sold downmarket while larger and more expensive pieces are sold elsewhere.
On 19 February, the English sellers between them had on offer 1257 lots, including many small objects and coins that could have been found in Syria. Also on 19 February, there were 12 Halaf figurines on offer, one from Seller 2, five from Seller 3, three from Seller 1, two from a seller based in Cyprus and one from a seller based in the USA.
What does eBay itself have to say about it all? A long click-distance away from the sale pages, we are directed through the small print heading ‘eBay responsible practices’ to the main eBay.com site where we find the eBay policy on prohibited and restricted items. Here is what it says:
The Halaf figurines are on an ICOM Red List, are widely believed to include forgeries among their number, and the sellers do not include any evidence of provenance or legal sale. And yet eBay does nothing. In January 2016, the UK government announced that it had established a £30 million Cultural Protection Fund for projects aimed at protecting cultural heritage overseas. Let us hope that some of the money is spent on cleaning up the government’s own backyard, starting with eBay.
Seif, Assad, 2015. Illicit traffic in cultural property in Lebanon. In France Desmarais (ed.), Countering Illicit Traffic in Cultural Goods. Paris: ICOM: 65-82.
What will I be watching next on eBay? Will eBay be watching me? To find out more, join me next month for … eBaywatch!