Tracking conflict antiquities and illicit antiquities sold via the internet is challenging, even for people who regularly try to monitor sites in their daily life or as part of ongoing research. Manual checks and automated link and keyword extraction crawlers can be useful for scraping data, but all too often it feels a bit like the arcade game whack-a-mole.
Just when you think you might be on to a terrorist selling antiquities on eBay, surprise! You really have only found the non-terrorist-leaning dishonest individual with the same modus aperandi that you have already recorded ten times before, but now with a different user name.
Take for example, this eBay auction which purports to be a Genuine Ancient Roman Iridescent Blown Glass Vial, what archaeologists call a piriform unguentaria. Ancient everyday vessels like these weren't intentionally iridescent. They gained their rainbow'd look when the vessel became buried in soil. Soil then leaches the alkali from the glass which, when corroded, can alter the glass object's surfaces to reflect light in such a way as to cause iridescence.
The eBay seller ancientgifts gives the following description for their item:
The eBay seller ancientgifts gives the following description for their item:
CLASSIFICATION: Ancient Roman Blown Glass Vial
ATTRIBUTION: Eastern Roman Empire (Syria), 1st Century A.D.
Height: 80 millimeters (3 1/4 inches)
Bowl Diameter: 11 millimeters (1/2 inch)
Neck Diameter: 8 millimeters (1/3 inch)
Top Lip Diameter: 16 millimeters (2/3 inch)
Weight: 5.99 grams
CONDITION: Very good, complete but likely repaired (professionally, probably by a conservator). Fairly uncommon style. Minor scratches and scuffs consistent with use and then burial in soil. Heavy layer of iridescence and soil deposits caused by prolonged burial in soil).
Surprisingly, this suggested "conservator-treated" piece still has soil clinging to it? Ancient objects that have surface deposits can contain important information on its use or provenance so IF the object actually passed through a conservator's hands, like the seller's object description implies, the potential significance of the soil deposits should have been evaluated and recorded, not merely left in place. Perhaps this teaser has been added to give the object the appearance of authenticity?
Not so surprisingly this genuine possibly-fake object comes without any provenance/collecting history. This in spite of the fact that the object has one of this seller's typical 3 kilometer long descriptions which outlines the likely history of the object ad nauseam.
But as eBay shoppers should know, provenance is difficult to produce when an object has recently been looted and equally hard to come by when a seemingly-authentic antiquity has no history at all because it isn't what it claims to be, or hasn't come from anywhere near where it has been suggested.
But who is the seller ancientgifts?
Looking through ancientgifts "ADDITIONAL TERMS OF SALE" takes you on a not so foxy fox hunt that I doubt any, but the most well-informed savvy collectors, who actually bother with conducting due diligence would ever bother with. The first click links you to his Ancient Gifts website at http://www.ancientgifts.biz. This link in turn leads you to a twitter profile: @ancientgifts which then lists another URL for a website claiming to be the SUSU - Student Association for Archaeology and Anthropology on which is posted the following claim.
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When searching with Google "Southern Urals State University Students Association for the Advancement of Archaeological and Anthropological Studies" doesn't return any URLs pointing to a legitimate organisation affiliated with the Chelyabinsk, Russia university.
The WHO IS registry however does give us some leads as the Registrant Contact Information for both of the seller's URLs is:
Name: Chuck Ordego
Organization: Timeless Treasure
Address: 3051 Hales Passage
City: Lummi Island
State / Province: WA
Postal Code: 98262
Note the "d" in the last name "Ordego".
A check of directory assistance shows that the telephone number and residential address affiliated with each site are registered to Charles Edward Ortego (notice the "t" and not the "d"), his wife Anna (sometimes written as Anya) Ponomareva who also goes by the name Anna Ortego and possibly a third individual, his elderly or deceased grandfather Carl Stube.
"Ortego" is the last name "Chuck" or "Charlie" or "Charles" uses, according to his mother's blog and various legal records related to a lawsuit he filed on behalf of a Lummi Island homeowners association he is registered with. His wife, according to one of her two Facebook pages, is from Chelyabinsk, Russia which might explain the Russian University nonsense or the certificates of authenticity they are willing to provide from the likely-fictitious university student group.
Mr. Stube appears to be Chuck's mother's father, and as she is in her late seventies, and the only evidence of his existence I could find was a fifty year old photo that would make him at least ninety. I personally doubt if he is still living.
In any case, I think we can say for certain that Charles E. Ortego, who lives at a residence located at 3051 Hales Passage, Lummi Island, Washington along with his Russian-born wife are the most likely humans behind the username ancientgifts and I don't want to make this post more tedious than it already is by listing all the sites where you can find a correlation.
The auction duo seem to "seed" their online sales with low value often-overpriced authentic objects alongside fakes and a mixed bag of inexpensive gemstones that Ms. Ponomareva Ortega advertises on two Facebook profiles and her Instagram profile.
The couple claim that much of the proceeds they make will go to "The Hermitage Museum in St. Petersburg, as well as some other worthy institutions in Europe connected with Anthropology and Archaeology."
Not surprisingly we weren't able to verify any donations to that esteemed institution.
Looking over past reports from suspicious archaeologists Doug Rocks-Macqueen and Paul Barford it appears that Ortego and/or his wife have been selling tourist-grade trinkets of sketchy origin under a variety of usernames for more than a decade.
Sometimes irreputable sellers on eBay create shill accounts to bid on their own auctions to drive up the prices and sometimes they change user names when they have been outed publicly for fraud, hoping that angry buyers or hostile competitors won't notice or won't pursue them.
Past online auction names that have been attributed to the individual(s) selling under the current username ancientgifts include:
But regardless of how many names the seller has used now or in the past, he has been successfully working the system for more than a decade.
This doesn't say much for eBay's investment in policing their own auction site, where profit opportunity is high and old rules for committing fraud no longer seem to be applied. Or if they are, they are applied selectively and very rarely when it comes to chasing dealers flogging low value ancient art.
But if you have any information on other user names used by this particular ancient art dealer, please send them our way and we can update his list.
If you have found your way to the ARCA blog doing your own due diligence as a potential eBay buyer/collector, consider yourself duly warned. Any successful con game depends on the greed and deception (especially self-deception) of BOTH the conner and the connee.
Purchasing ancient art via the murky waters of an online trading community the size of eBay, is the perfect toxic cocktail for the uninformed novice collector. The site has all the trappings of honest tradesmen plying their goods in the 21st century but still very little in the way of deterring or prosecuting criminals and conmen.
Welcome to the Wild Wild Web.
By: Lynda Albertson