From my brother is this excellent example of unforseeable consequences to technological innovation.

A little over a decade ago, archaeologists experienced a collective nightmare--the emergence of eBay, the Internet auction site that, among other things, lets people sell looted artifacts. The black market for antiquities has existed for centuries, of course, with devastating consequences for the world's cultural heritage. But we could at least take some comfort that it was largely confined to either high-end dealers on one end of the economic spectrum or rural flea markets on the other. The sheer physical constraints of transporting and selling illegal artifacts kept the market relatively small. But the rise of online auction sites promised to drastically alter the landscape. And so it did, just not in the dire way we had anticipated. ...

Our greatest fear was that the Internet would democratize antiquities trafficking and lead to widespread looting. This seemed a logical outcome of a system in which anyone could open up an eBay site and sell artifacts dug up by locals anywhere in the world. We feared that an unorganized but massive looting campaign was about to begin, with everything from potsherds to pieces of the Great Wall on the auction block for a few dollars. But a very curious thing has happened. It appears that electronic buying and selling has actually hurt the antiquities trade.

How is it possible? The short answer is that many of the primary "producers" of the objects have shifted from looting sites to faking antiquities. I've been tracking eBay antiquities for years now, and from what I can tell, this shift began around 2000, about five years after eBay was established. It is true that fakes have been around for centuries. In 1886, the celebrated Smithsonian archaeologist W. H. Holmes described countless bogus antiquities in Mexico. A few decades later, Egyptologist T. G. Wakeling noted that many ancient Egyptian artifacts were, in fact, fakes. In the 19th century, American and European museums purchased large numbers of "Etruscan" ceramic vessels and sarcophagi that came straight from the kilns of rural Italian farmers. But these were usually the really good fakes, labor-intensive pieces that required lots of work and skill. Today, every grade and kind of antiquity is being mass-produced and sold in quantities too large to imagine.

Instead of provoking more looting, online auctions have provoked forgeries of a quantity and quality level hitherto unimaginable.

Just goes to show that even when "experts" make predictions and plans with the best of intentions, the future always holds some surprises. That's another good reason for our policymakers to stay humble and for us citizens to keep our government as limited as possible.

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