Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Buying Medieval Antiques on e-Bay

Someone asked me, in passing, a question that I've never considered, but might be of importance to medievalists and those who love them this Xmas*: How reliable are the medieval antiques sold on e-Bay?

I think the person asking was more interested in the idea of authenticity -- in other words, if I buy a medieval spearhead, will it really be a medieval spearhead, or will it be something made in the garage to look medieval?

To his question, I add this: Are you likely to run into things being fenced? Are some of the leaves of medieval manuscripts sold there "liberated" from not-so-carefully-monitored MSS with the use of an exacto knife?

Obviously, on e-Bay it's going to depend on the seller, since the site itself exercises minimal oversight on the products sold there, but I wonder if folks out there have cautionary tales or simple tips for telling the good from the bad?

*I've decided to Xmas rather than Christmas on the Wordhoard this season. After all, medievalists should know that abbreviating "Christ" to X is a sign of reverence in medieval manuscripts -- so why not on medieval blogs too?


  1. To his question, I add this: Are you likely to run into things being fenced? Are some of the leaves of medieval manuscripts sold there "liberated" from not-so-carefully-monitored MSS with the use of an exacto knife?

    Good timing. Just a few days ago I read a similar story, here. (The story is in Italian; you can translate it via Google, or hunt around for the story in English; there's bound to be one, but I won't trouble to search it out).

    Basically, a "scholar" named Farhad Hakimzadeh razored out pages from more than 150 medieval texts at the British Library and the Bodleian, "with the precision of a surgeon", and in spite of closed-circuit television monitoring the special collections. Incredible!

  2. Oh dear. That's terrifying. Bodleain and the British Library too.

    Though it's also worrying that they lay careful emphasis on 'nato in Iran' and call him 'l'iraniano'. It makes the TERRORIST OF BOOKS! hysterical leap just a little too easy. Then again, they also call him 'the thief' several times, so maybe it's just the dramatic phrasing of the whole.

    About ebay - I don't know. I think I'm fairly good at telling a trustworthy seller from a less reliable one there, but when it comes to antiquities? The feedback given by buyers is going to be very dependant on their ability to distinguish good from bad, and there's no guide to their credentials. And of course, if you've just bought something and it looks convincing, you want to believe it's real anyway...

  3. Anonymous7:53 AM

    I don't know so much about medieval items, but I do see something of the trade across eBay in ancient coins. Some of these, and some of the medieval ones too, are definitely fakes. In the world of medieval stuff people who know their stuff don't seem as yet to trade through eBay as much, preferring private deals, but ancient stuff is not so innocent. The problem is just as often that the seller doesn't realise he or she has a bad egg, though. I've known people buy fakes, have them identified as such and get their money back from apparently sincerely unaware sellers; and I've known people find the sellers have disappeared (only one case of that, admittedly). There's nothing about eBay that makes it safe to trust that the seller both knows and says what the item really is.

    As far as coins go, never ever buy a `genuine shekel of the Jewish revolt', and don't buy any coin with the letters 'WR' on one face in different lettering from the main legend. There has been a flourishing Israeli industry in making the former since 1948, often illegitimately from legitimately made copies that are almost indistinguishable from the real thing except by metallurgists, and the latter are products of a company called Westair Reproductions who have been carefully marking their stuff like that for thirty years so that it can't be mistaken for the real thing. We still get people trying to tell us they dug them up in a field. Otherwise, you take your chances, I'm afraid.

  4. Anonymous7:55 AM

    As for stolen things, one of the projects that's paying me is all about trying to spot such items electronically. There is a lot out there. Caveat emptor I'm afraid.