Holding an ancient artwork in your own hand, and feeling connected to the person who first owned it thousands of years ago, is thrilling. Pop star Demi Lovato thought they were experiencing just such a thrill earlier this week. Lovato, who uses they/them pronouns, posted videos on Instagram showing ancient Egyptian figurines and cuneiform tablets they said had just been purchased from an online antiquities dealer.
I’m an art historian who studies the black market for cultural heritage, and I’ve got some unfortunate news for Lovato: The objects I saw in the videos are more likely 21st century A.D. fakes than 21st century B.C. antiquities.
While I haven’t examined the artifacts in person, Lovato’s videos are very revealing. Ancient Egyptians sometimes placed hundreds of small shabtis figurines like the ones Lovato showed in tombs, thinking they would come alive as servants for the deceased in the afterlife. Although many survive from antiquity, shabtis have long been such popular tourist souvenirs that they’ve been faked in great numbers since at least the early 19th century.
Lovato certainly isn’t the only one fooled by people selling fake antiquities online. While working on a book about art forgery, I’ve found countless examples of laughably bad fakes.
A painting of Jesus made in 18 B.C. — miraculously before his birth! An ancient Roman statuette of Hercules molded from a plastic action hero! Neolithic animal sculptures that are really just clumps of mud!
The fact that scammers are flooding the internet with fake ancient masterpieces is a known problem. In the fall, a New York gallery owner pleaded guilty to forging antiquities, receiving five years of probation. When investigators from the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office carried out the bust, they found a hidden back room in his gallery, filled with the belt sander and putties he used to make factory-made shabtis look like supposedly valuable works of ancient art.
On the other hand, if Lovato has indeed purchased fakes rather than genuine antiquities, that’s probably good news. Unless your purchase comes with a stack of paperwork proving that an antiquity was dug up and exported legally, your everyday buyer runs the very real risk of ending up with looted artwork.
Egypt has regulated the export of antiquities like shabtis since 1835. But recent years have seen a spike in the looting of Egypt’s archeological sites by people eager to take advantage of the turmoil of events like the Arab Spring. Looters tear apart tombs in search of a few sellable trinkets, causing serious damage to the past. Compounding this historical tragedy, dozens of children have died after being forced to crawl into narrow looting tunnels.
On the other hand, if Lovato has indeed purchased fakes rather than genuine antiquities, that’s probably good news.
Two other objects in Lovato’s video are square clay tablets with cuneiform writing. Many such tablets survive from what is now Iraq, recording life in vivid detail (including what are probably the world’s oldest customer service complaints). Collectors have long been fascinated by these tablets, and they have long been buying the products of fakers, who need nothing more than some clay and a pointy stick to profit from such ongoing fascination.
But again, buyers should be even more wary of genuine cuneiform tablets. The looting of Iraqi archeological sites during the Gulf War flooded the market with thousands of tablets. Looters even discovered and plundered the libraries of an entire ancient city, although scholars still haven’t discovered its location. During the recent conflict in Syria, even more tablets found their way to collectors, as groups like the Islamic State looted archeological sites to fund their conflict. The FBI has warned dealers and collectors to not buy anything that looks like it could have come from an Iraqi or Syrian site without being sure it wasn’t sold through a terrorist group.
Today, consumers ask questions about purchases ranging from diamonds to avocados to make sure they are spending their money on sustainable, ethically made products. If we can check a coffee package for a fair trade label, we can also make sure we aren’t helping to destroy global history and ruin lives just for the sake of holding an ancient artwork. The past is a nonrenewable cultural resource. Although, it looks like forgeries will be freely available as long as there are people to fool.