The Bones of Saint Stephen, Now on eBay
Friday, November 24, 2006
Hardly an hour goes by without Thomas Serafin or one of his cyber-sleuths checking what eBay has to offer.
They're not hunting for bargains, and they never place a bid. Their interest is bone shards, bits of wizened flesh and a contemporary twist on the sacred and the profane: How the ancient trade in the most coveted religious relics has moved into the global flea market of online bidding.
"You can find bone fragments supposedly from Saint Augustine being hawked on the Internet along with trinkets and antiques. There is something very wrong here," said Serafin, a professional photographer and Catholic activist based in Los Angeles. Since the late 1990s, Serafin has led an expanding campaign to block the online sale of objects purported to contain the remains of Christian saints.
Last month, Serafin's group, the International Crusade for Holy Relics, opened a new front worthy of a David-and-Goliath metaphor: a call to boycott eBay.
It seeks to pressure the world's largest online auction site to close alleged loopholes used to bypass its ban on allowing bids for human remains.
Hani Durzy, spokesman for eBay, said the San Jose, Calif., company is "very willing to reopen talks" with Serafin's group about its concerns after discussions broke off about a year ago. "As far as the boycott, well, we've really seen no impact to speak of," Durzy said. "We don't know if it's even still in place."
But Serafin said the symbolism is what's important. "Yes, it's just a blip on the screen," he said. "But we want to make a point. They are taking the same position as Judas. They are selling out the church."
Interest in religious patrimony of all types -- from icons to stained glass -- has soared in recent years, along with the blockbuster novel "The Da Vinci Code," the Christian-themed "Left Behind" book series and major museum exhibits devoted to art and spirituality. At the same time, a flood of ecclesiastical items has entered mainstream antiquarian markets from once-flourishing churches that are closing because of shrinking congregations or population shifts away from older city neighborhoods.
But the sale of so-called "first-class relics" -- bone, flesh, hair, nails and fragments of other body parts -- remains a murky subculture, one that's increasingly shifting from the back rooms of dealers' shops to the Web's worldwide mall.
Dozens of religious items are on eBay at any time. Most are ordinary objects, such as icons, medals or prayer cards. But Serafin thinks the strongest interest is for the first-class relics, which he says have accounted for up to 40 percent of eBay relic listings at times.
"This is where the real action is," he said. "This is where our fight is."
Serafin describes his motivation as part consciousness-raiser and part consumer crusader. He calls the sale of such relics deeply offensive to believers in their sanctity.
Then there is the caveat emptor -- "let the buyer beware" -- factor. Clear documentation on a first-class relic is extremely rare, and fraud is as old as faith -- as noted more than 600 years ago in a scene from "The Canterbury Tales" in which pigs' bones and a pillowcase are part of a cache of dubious relics brought from Rome.
Some recent offerings on eBay included the air that Christ purportedly breathed, the supposed wing of the Holy Spirit and the alleged hand of Saint Stephen.
Serafin also says the rules -- both canon and eBay's -- are on his side.
Most churches with centuries-old traditions in the display and veneration of relics, including the Roman Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity, prohibit the sale of objects thought to hold body parts.
The extensive list of eBay's banned items include Nazi paraphernalia, firearms and ammunition and "human parts and remains."
Durzy said eBay has more than 2,000 people assigned to cull prohibited items from the site but noted that blanket enforcement is a challenge with up to 7 million new items going up for bid every day.
Sellers don't make it any easier. Many now make a point of saying that the reliquary, or container, is for sale and the actual relic is a "gift." There are even conflicting linguistic signals. On Monday, a seller posted a relic of Saint Eymard, a 19th-century priest, that was described as "ex ossibus," Latin for "from the bones." But the fuller text says the relic "does not contain any human parts."
Attempts by the Associated Press to reach the seller -- and several other relic dealers on eBay -- via e-mail contact information were unsuccessful.
"We just want the same rules that apply to guns, Nazi items or the bones of American Indians," said Serafin, whose group is a loose association of about 200 members worldwide.
Across the time zones, they try to keep a round-the-clock vigil on eBay for any suspicious relics. They fire off e-mails to eBay and the seller -- who is often known only by an online nickname and e-mail address -- asking for the item to be withdrawn.
But it's a cumbersome process.
Late last month, Serafin's group protested what they considered an "ex ossibus" relic of Saint John Vianney. The sale went ahead, starting at $25. Twenty-seven bids later, an anonymous buyer picked it up for $565, plus $12 shipping.