Reddit is a forum-based platform where users can anonymously discuss a range of topics: world news, TV shows and popular culture, niche interests, memes, and any other subject; in fact, there are over 3.4 million subreddits to choose from, ranging in size from just one user to tens of millions. If a designated forum for a specific topic (subreddit) doesn’t exist, one can be created in a matter of minutes. With 1.22 billion global users as of January 2024, Reddit is the fifth largest social media platform, after Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and TikTok.

However, while online platforms like social media have provided unprecedented opportunities for sharing knowledge and fostering communities of interest, they have also inadvertently facilitated the illicit antiquities trade. With the click of a button, ancient artifacts can be advertised, bought, and sold on social media platforms, often with little regard for their provenance or legal status. This ease of access has fuelled international demand for looted antiquities and indirectly contributed to the destruction of archaeological sites worldwide.

Like other social media platforms, Reddit has been co-opted to facilitate the trafficking of cultural goods. In certain subreddits (which I won’t name because they don’t need to be promoted), members share photos of objects and request authentication and valuation from other users. Some even post objects for sale and can find buyers who are not bothered by a lack of provenance or import certifications. However, there are also many other subreddits focused on ancient or historic culture that have established rules intended to undermine the traditional ways in which social media facilitates the trafficking of cultural goods, setting standards for ethical and responsible online behaviour. r/Archaeology and r/Cuneiform are two such forums that have banned posts requesting the authentication or valuation of unprovenanced artifacts. This rule aims to mitigate the unintentional support of the illicit antiquities trade within the community.

In the antiquities market, authenticity is of the highest importance for both buyers and sellers. There are many methods used to establish the authenticity of archaeological objects, one of which is the provisioning of documentation that attests to the legitimate, professional excavation of the object from its original findspot (provenience). This documentation can include excavation reports, site photos, and literature published by archaeologists involved in the find. However, having a full set of this documentation for an object on the open market is increasingly rare due to legal restrictions on excavations and the import/export of these objects.

In the absence of this documentation, many buyers and sellers rely on expert opinion to support claims of an object’s authenticity. Antiquities sellers often leverage the credibility of respected scholars to assuage buyer concerns. However, the involvement of archaeologists and researchers in authenticating unprovenanced objects has been observed to contribute to the market for illicit antiquities and is considered unethical. Moreover, the publication of looted antiquities in scholarly journals further complicates the authentication process and has been linked to high-profile cases of cultural goods trafficking such as the case of Douglas Latchford, who published authoritative texts on Cambodian Khmer artifacts to fabricate provenances for the objects he trafficked.

The complexities of authentication underscore the need for greater transparency and ethical responsibility within the antiquities market. As scholars and collectors navigate the intricacies of provenance and authenticity, a commitment to preserving cultural heritage must remain at the fore to safeguard vulnerable cultural heritage for future generations.

The Schøyen Collection is another case study that embodies the ethical grey area represented by much artifact acquisition and authentication. This private collection boasts a rich number of manuscripts spanning millennia of human history. With over 13,000 items, encompassing manuscripts from 134 different countries and territories, the Schøyen Collection is truly a global repository of cultural heritage, spanning 120 languages and 185 scripts. However, recent acquisitions from conflict-ridden regions have cast a shadow of controversy over the collection, prompting scrutiny of its provenance and acquisition practices. Allegations of acquisitions sourced through illicit channels underscore the need for due diligence within the antiquities trade.

The collection’s mission, ostensibly grounded in advancing the study of human culture and civilization, has been both celebrated and scrutinized. Recent acquisitions from conflict-ridden regions such as the Middle East and Afghanistan have raised questions regarding provenance and ethical acquisition practices. Allegations have surfaced suggesting that certain acquisitions may have been sourced through black market transactions, exacerbating concerns surrounding the reckless destruction of ancient sites and the financing of illicit activities.

Iraq and Afghanistan have sought the return of specific items acquired by the Schøyen Collection, further amplifying the controversy. The collection’s owner, however, vehemently asserts its commitment to cultural protection and ethical acquisition, citing proactive compliance with legal standards and a dedication to preserving the heritage of mankind.

One such controversy involves the acquisition of 654 Aramaic incantation bowls. These items, alleged to have been stolen from Iraq and illegally traded, were obtained by the collection through intermediaries. The bowls were later provided to University College London for academic study, sparking allegations of unethical endorsement of these acquisition practices. Despite denials of wrongdoing by the collection, the incident underscores the complexities and ethical dilemmas inherent in the purchase and authentication of cultural artifacts.

This case study and others have been the focus of research by Neil Brodie, an archaeologist and scholar of the illicit trade who has also published on the specific role played by auction houses in facilitating the trafficking of unprovenanced objects. Brodie presents cases of auction houses having been caught selling stolen or illicit material, revealing their dismissive attitude towards policies and practices intended to subvert the trade. He highlights instances where auction houses, despite internal investigations uncovering evidence of illegal trade, choose not to publicize such findings. Moreover, Brodie’s examination of the Getty Museum’s acquisition practices delves into the murky waters of museum acquisitions and the exposure of curator Marion True’s connection to looting in Italy. He questions whether museum culture and the psychology of collecting inherently encourage misconduct, drawing parallels between corporate crime and museum malpractice.

Expert involvement in the antiquities market serves as a double-edged sword, offering both authentication and ethical quandaries. Auction houses and dealerships frequently promote in-house “experts” to authenticate artifacts, yet the potential conflicts of interest inherent in this practice are often overlooked. While authentication by reputable scholars lends credence to artifacts’ legitimacy, the involvement of archaeologists in the market raises profound ethical concerns. Auction houses and dealerships, valued for their expertise, play a pivotal role in facilitating transactions within the antiquities trade. However, academic scholarship is increasingly casting a critical eye on their practices, revealing instances of complicity in the sale of illicit material and the opacity of provenance research. This research, another method of establishing authenticity, should offer insights into an artifact’s ownership history. However, while provenance can lend credibility to an artifact, it’s not a foolproof indicator of authenticity, as forged documents and deceptive practices can further obscure the true origins of artifacts.

At the intersection of technological innovation and cultural heritage preservation, subreddits dedicated to the study of ancient culture and antiquities are navigating a landscape fraught with both challenges and opportunities. The advent of social media platforms has democratized access to knowledge, enabling individuals worldwide to participate in scholarly discourse and discovery. However, alongside these advancements, social media has unwittingly become a conduit for the illicit antiquities trade, perpetuating the desecration of archaeological sites and heritage theft.

In response to these concerns, subreddits like r/Archaeology and r/Cuneiform are spearheading initiatives aimed at preserving heritage and combatting the trafficking of cultural goods. Central to this endeavour is the implementation of stringent directives prohibiting posts soliciting the valuation or authentication of artifacts—a proactive measure designed to mitigate inadvertent contributions to the illicit trade within the community. By fostering a community committed to responsible engagement and scholarly inquiry, these subreddits are working to safeguard heritage for future generations.

In the tumultuous landscape of the antiquities trade, ethical considerations and preservation imperatives intersect with the complexities of market dynamics and technological advancements. As debates surrounding provenance and ethical stewardship continue to unfold, the role of experts and auction houses remains a subject of ongoing scrutiny and debate. In the digital age, where the boundaries between legality and illegality blur, it is imperative that we remain vigilant in our efforts to safeguard cultural heritage for future generations. Through collaborative initiatives and ethical engagement, we can hope to stem the tide of illicit trade and preserve the echoes of antiquity for posterity. From the opaque practices of auction houses to the pivotal role of experts in shaping market demand, the antiquities trade remains a nexus of controversy and ethical dilemmas.


1 Brodie, Neil. “Auction Houses and the Antiquities Trade” in S. Choulia-Kapeloni (ed.) 3rd International Conference of Experts on the Return of Cultural Property. Athens: Archaeological Receipts Fund, 2014. 71-82.
2 Brodie, Neil. “Comment on ‘Irreconcilable Differences?’” Institute of Archaeology 18 (2007): 12-15.
3 Brodie, Neil. “Museum Malpractice as Corporate Crime? The Case of the J. Paul Getty Museum.” Journal of Crime and Justice 37, no. 3 (2014): 399-421.
4 Brodie, Neil. “Scholarship and Insurgency? The Study and Trade of Iraqi Antiquities” in Illicit Traffic of Cultural Objects: Law, Ethics, and the Realities. An Institute of Advanced Studies Workshop 4-5 August 2011. Perth: University of Western Australia, 2011.
5 Brodie, Neil. “Stolen History: Looting and Illicit Trade.” Museum International 55 (2003): 3-4.
6 Kersel, Morag. “From the Ground to the Buyer: A Market Analysis of the Trade in Illegal Antiquities” in Archaeology, Cultural Heritage, and the Antiquities Trade. Edited by Neil Brodie, Morag Kersel, Christina Luke, and Kathryn Walker Tubb. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2006. 188–205.
7 Hardy, Samuel Andrew. “Private ‘Rescue’-by-Purchase of Stolen Cultural Goods: The Material and Social Consequences and the Complicity of Europe and North America.” International Journal for Crime, Justice and Social Democracy (2020): 1-18.
8 Yates, Donna. “Value and Doubt: The persuasive power of ‘authenticity’ in the antiquities market.” Parse 2 (2015).