The Odyssey of an Iliad Papyrus

A Homer papyrus was sold today through Aguttes Auction House, France, for 35,000 euros. The papyrus, a fragment with lines from the beginning of the Iliad, is an old friend of us as it is linked with Dr Scott Carroll, Director of the Green Collection from 2009 to 2012, and now CEO of his own business, the Manuscripts Research Group, and connected with various other entities.

The Iliad papyrus surfaced in a video of a presentation given by Carroll at an evangelical Christian charity event of 2016. The video is still available on Youtube (below), and was reported also by Brent Nongbri in his blog. As usual, Carroll did not explain where he sourced this or any other papyrus in the slides. Can we imagine an origin similar to that of the Green papyri, mostly acquired during his direction and which were all given back to Egypt, apart from a bunch of legal provenance?

The next public appearance of the Iliad papyrus was on the Pinterest account of Aristophil.

Aristophil – a very debated business, that traded in virtual quotas of rare manuscripts and books – went through a series of legal cases. Following court decisions, Aguttes has been involved in the liquidation of the Aristophil collections, as it is explained in a website presenting the lots and sales.

But how did this papyrus end with Aristophil? It was acquired in 2013 from Les Enluminures, rare manuscripts, books and antiques business owned by Sandra Hindman. Possibly the papyrus was handled for a client – hard to know since the rules of discretion regulating the market. The only information available through Aguttes is that the papyrus came through Hindman, was in private ownership since the beginning of the XXth century, and had been studied by Dr Dirk Obbink and  Dr Scott Carroll, as explained via email to my colleague Michael Sampson.

I contacted Aguttes via email last June to flag the papyrus without success.

Evangelical trade in Biblical antiquities in the United States: It is still happening

Would you like to see plenty of “Biblical” antiquities of unknown provenance including some forgeries too? Then download the two pdf brochures that a Mr Brandon Witt is circulating to institutions and individuals for sale (the second version seems to imply that some items have been indeed sold).

Many of the pieces seem related with Scott Carroll and other evangelical dealers/collectors/morons. Cuneiform tablets, the usual Ptolemaic papyrus from cartonnage, a post-2002 Dead Sea scroll fragment and late antique parchments. Real, forgeries or replicas? Who knows? Only Torah scrolls seem missing from the cabinet of curiosities, probably none has been left after Hobby Lobby and later Ken and Barbara Larson swept the market.

I sent an email to Mr Witt to fix a call and listen at the story of how he came in the possession of this remarkable assortment, but he says he has “a couple other big deals” which are taking up a lot of his time – frightening, as I can’t imagine what else he is trying to sell.

To me it is a mystery why American evangelicals seem entitled to sell their unprovenanced and forged Biblical trinkets without any consequences.

I had thought to speak about the past at next week conference on The Market for Biblical Antiquities (1852-2022), but then the present is so remarkable I will have to discuss it, too…

Details on how to participate here:

An auction of antiquities to support Classics is the right path to killing a discipline

Classics for All, a charity that many of us know and appreciate for its work in schools, has launched a new initiative. An auction of antiquities, among other things, to raise funds:

There are even two professors in archaeological related subjects joining the auction (lot 33 and 41).

I would like to express my personal dismay for the many ethical issues surrounding the antiquities market and the troubling involvement of academia with it; not to mention the vague provenance provided for the pieces on sale. This initiative seems to me to go against the goal of making our disciplines more inclusive and ethical. The idea of auctioning ancient objects, which had been taken (legally or not) from subaltern countries, to foster Classics makes me cringe.

This auction goes against the work many (but clearly not all) of us are patiently doing in teaching and research: we try to build a field guided by equality, ethics and respect for the culture of minorities and other nations. Not in theory, in PRACTICE, our own everyday practice. This auction is not helping our job at all. We face forward, this auction faces backwards to a past that we are trying to address in a critical way in order to build a better, more inclusive and just, future.

Update: Erin Thompson, art crime professor at CUNY, has done some digging on the provenance and pricing of the pieces on sale and posted the results on Twitter. They add further worries on this auction that we hope will be cancelled as soon as possible.

If you are disappointed too, please consider sending an email to the charity or approaching them on Twitter and other social media:

List of trustees in the website:

The dark side of truth. Some thoughts on Ariel Sabar new book.


I have had a very hard time reading the new book of Ariel Sabar on the Jesus Wife fragment saga. (I call it fragment on purpose as the definition of Gospel is misleading, in my opinion). Don’t get me wrong. The author has done a great job and has transformed materials from years of extensive and meticulous research into a gripping tale. I definitely recommend you to buy and read the volume. However, this is also a painful reading for the old and new findings and stories it displays. As many of the actors and spectators of the saga have already commented in social media and other conversations, the book is like going through the whole nastiness of the episode over again.

Although the main thread of the book is forgery, for me this is first and foremost a volume about the dangerous relationship between academics and the trade in papyri, and the importance of provenance. I remember a splendid comment posted by Carrie Schroeder when Sabar published his 2016 article entitled Provenance, Provenance, Provenance. I wrote in that same vein in my blog, as the case of the Jesus Wife papyrus had so much in common with the almost contemporary story of the New Sappho fragments that I was following more closely.

The paradox is that in spite of the many discoveries made by Sabar since the time of that first article, the provenance of the Jesus Wife fragment and the rest of Walter Fritz’s collection remains a mystery. The book shows that the letters that Fritz produced to professor King in support of the acquisition tale were forged; Sabar hints at possible sources, when he writes about how easy it was for students to access unsupervised collections while Fritz was a student and the trips of Fritz to Egypt. It should be recalled that the papyri in the hands of the con man are genuine, including those originally blank on which the Jesus Wife ‘gospel’ and the Gospel of John had been copied by the forger.

An interesting twist in the recent life of the papyrus has been just disclosed by Sabar in an interview to The Atlantic. The Jesus Wife fragment has been seized from Harvard and put in the custody of the American Department of Homeland Security. It transpired that an Egyptian official from the Ministry of Antiquities had raised questions that initiated a process for the repatriation of the papyrus. Whether the rest of the collection will eventually follow the same fate is for now unclear. If I were the Egyptian official or one of his colleagues, I would ask for the restitution of the whole lot of Mr Fritz at this point. The con man has eagerly given his assent to the seizure, it appears. Perhaps he had thought that restitution to Egypt might prompt new discussions on the authenticity or the value of the papyrus, which of course will never happen in the light of what coptologists and Sabar have shown. Sabar warns us not to underestimate Fritz’s intellectual potential, but frankly this book has left me convinced that he is just a very dangerous sociopath who got lucky for some years.

I have been intrigued by the way Sabar reconstructs the personal and cultural trajectories of his main characters. He did the same in his last article on the other academic that has filled the newspaper headlines with papyrus stories in these years, Dirk Obbink. We had a brief discussion about his methodology because I found it fascinating, yet not fully convincing. In my work as an ancient historian, I tend not to give a too great importance to people’s biographies. Personal biographies can become interesting to understand why and how something happens only when they intersect with those of other people at some specific point in history. I think that the writing and reading of biographies can be entertaining but also dangerously deceptive, as it is easy to develop strong positive or negative feelings for the main character. But Sabar is an investigative journalist not a historian – I am just trying to say that this book is intellectually engaging and made me think about methods.

The narrative choice to develop the story of the Jesus Wife fragment around two main personalities – the Harvard professor and the con man of the title – makes the structure of the book tight and the tale exciting, but I am not so sure it helped Sabar and his readers to fully appreciate what has happened and why. I don’t think that the motivations of King’s or Fritz’s behaviours and choices regarding the papyrus in question rest on their personal biographies but rather in a complex of events in which they, and the papyrus fragment too, became entangled. In other words, the two protagonists were involved in something much wider and complex, with roots back in the past. I would say that the Jesus Wife case was a perfect storm caused by a cyclone travelling a long distance for a while that finally found the right place and condition to unleash its power. It was a storm that some had seen coming: those academics and students who have been campaigning for some time to introduce far more serious and tight ethical guidelines in the publication of ancient manuscripts. This book and the article that preceded it have made their job easier, and I am extremely grateful to the author for this.

The book is important not so much for the account of the sexual life of the con man and the rebellious childhood of professor King, but rather because it is an enduring witness of the collective failure of an academic system that should have ensured that that fragment – as others before and even after it – would have never been presented at a conference and would have never been published. The fact that it was discussed at the 2012 Rome conference without showing a picture is something I didn’t know before, and reminded me of the Green Initiative students covering the images of the papyri they presented at past SBL and of the pathetic images, blurred and cut, that I found in the catalogues produced by Carroll and later Trobisch for the Green exhibitions in Rome and elsewhere.

What the book demonstrates is that the academy as a whole had not enough antibodies to react to what was happening. It is here that I see some weaknesses in the way the book has been structured; the reader is lead to dissect the lives of the two main characters, and some other key-actors, while instead they should have been brought to look at the wider context and the many issues surrounding the fragment, first and foremost its provenance. We get glimpses into all of this – the university pressure on academics to make headlines, a professor hoping to oppose the restructuring of her School through making those headlines, the young scholars who nailed the decisive arguments to prove the fragment to be a forgery but don’t have jobs and even run away from academia, the influence that opinions coming from some top-professors had on the way the debate unfortunately developed. To some extent the prominent space occupied by the Harvard professor and the con man gives even the opportunity to all the other culprits in the story to get out clean. More importantly it impairs the reader’s ability to appreciate that the Jesus Wife fragment case is deeply rooted in the long history of our disciplines – papyrology, Coptic studies and others – and the far too close relationship academics have had with collectors and the market. We were all in this together, I would say, although with different degrees of responsibility.

A comment of Morag Kersel recently posted in Brent Nongbri’s blog summarizes the brutal simplicity of what went wrong:

‘In 2012 I participated in Society of Biblical Literature panel on publishing unprovenienced artifacts. I examined whether Dr. King would be able to present her findings on the so-called “Gospel of Jesus’ Wife” at the annual meetings or publish her findings in the scholarly journals of the American Anthropological Association or the Society for American Archaeology. The answers were resounding no.’

Scholars in biblical studies, and the other textual oriented disciplines involved, were not culturally prepared to appreciate the unethical choice made by King and others to research and publish an ancient artefact fresh from the market without performing a careful due diligence on its provenance. As argued in a brilliant recent article of Jodi Magness and Dennis Mitzi, you shouldn’t even start discussing if a papyrus is authentic or not, without having clarified beforehand if its collection history is sufficiently documented and legal.

In other words, Karen King should not have been given the possibility to present and publish this papyrus not because it was a patent forgery but because she did not check if the provenance story provided by the owner was solid or even true. She was indeed warned about the oddities of the provenance tales by at least one of the Harvard Theological Review readers, professor Emmel. In the report that Sabar showed me, the coptologist pointed out that the provenance of the papyrus was highly suspicious and inconsistent, and that increased his already serious doubts about the authenticity of the fragment – not a word about ethical issues were in the report, however. King and the editors of the journal seem to have ignored those wise words. In the light of what has happened, I would recommend  journals and also publishers in our fields to learn the lesson and amend their publication ethics policies accordingly, as Brill has recently done adding a section on unprovenanced artifacts, after the nasty experiences they had with the New Sappho fragments and the Museum of the Bible series.

I have suffered reading the book because it sadly reminded me of my old self, of how naïve I have been when the Jesus Wife and the New Sappho fragments first came to light. At that time, I had a blind trust in senior colleagues and the universities they belonged to. I was sincerely convinced that both texts had some shady aspects in their collection histories but I was far from suspecting the amount of problems that were going to come to light. Having seen what I have seen happening in this last 6-8 years, I have become very cynical about the profession. While everyone is indeed responsible of their own actions, I think that as lecturers/professors we should internalise the failure of a certain way of teaching and practising textual disciplines. We did not insist enough on teaching and researching manuscripts as archaeological objects and the ethical issues behind their circulation not only on the market but also on our desks.

Are there any positive outcomes from the Jesus Wife affair, apart from the entertaining brilliant book written by Sabar? Certainly there is more awareness on the issues at stake as a result of this and other scandals. At the moment, however, I feel just low, confused and also a bit ashamed. We can all be definitely better than this.


The Green collection saga latest developments: Some thoughts and a piece of news


The Coptic Galatians fragment at the time of his eBay Mixantik offering in 2012

Is the newest-new Sappho a forgery?

As the entangled tale of the origin of the new Sappho fragments is finally coming to light, I have heard increasing voices on Twitter and elsewhere wondering if those papyri are authentic or not. I must confess that I am playing with the idea of a forgery since a while. I have just finished my chapter on the Sappho papyri for the book I am writing, The Secret Life of Manuscripts, and delved into the most amazing world of Sappho papyrology and attributions, so I needed to consider all these possibilities. But then I thought, Houston, we have a problem: any serious investigation about the status of these fragments is at the moment impossible because it needs autopsy! Someone can eventually convince Mr Green to show us his fragments before they will be sent to Egypt, but any access to the largest and in my opinion more problematic piece is simply impossible. We don’t know where the hell P.Sapph.Obbink is at the moment: was it sold through a private sale treaty by Christie’s – a place where the most awkward exchanges are happening as we have recently learnt? Or is it still with the London anonymous owner(s) – that might or might not be Mr Mahmoud Elder and the scholar who gave his name to the fragment? It still is a mystery.

Old and new tales of provenance

In his most gripping article for the Atlantic, Ariel Sabar reveals that he has had access to the Stimer’s collection inventory and two papyrus fragments that had been in fact pilfered from the Egypt Exploration Society collection were given two different provenances in a scholarly report attached to them and allegedly authored by Dirk Obbink: they were said to come from the recent selling of the papyrus collections of the Badè museum of Berkeley Pacific School of Religion and of the United Theological Seminary in Dayton Ohio. A responsible collector would have made some checks in order to have documents corroborating such statements: Stimer did not, and that is not strange in my opinion since the profile of this ‘collector’ is the more and more similar to that of a ‘collector-dealer’ who is interested in profit rather than in the study and conservation of the objects in question. I also found interesting that the two provenances attributed to the above mentioned fragments are the same as those of papyri that Obbink had in fact legally purchased from the two sales.

I have already asked Christie’s to explain the contents of email exchanges I had with their manuscripts curator Eugenio Donadoni back in January 2015, in which he said that he was standing by the provenance of the Galatians and Sappho fragments as coming from the dismounting of cartonnage sold as part of lot 1 of their 2011 auction. I believe that Christie’s has the ethical duty to give some explanations for those statements in the light of what has emerged in the meanwhile about 1. the provenance of the Green Sappho fragments from Yakup Eksioglu; 2. the highly problematic images and contents of the private sale treaty brochure for P.Sapph.Obbink; 3. the recent story of the Gilgamesh cuneiform tablet and its tales of provenance.

A piece of news: the Coptic Galatians fragment provenance

Speaking of Galatians: Mike Holmes has recently informed me via email that the Coptic Galatians fragment – which was on sale on eBay through Yakup Eksioglu/Mixantik account in the Autumn of 2012 – had been purchased by Hobby Lobby on 9 July 2013. The seller was not my friend Yakup, but the Israeli based dealer Baidun. Baidun apparently gave two different tales of provenance to the Green: first a collector that when asked denied to be the source and later the above mentioned famous Christie’s auction lot. Isn’t that amazing?

I now wonder, who is the buyer of this infamous lot 1 of the London Christie’s auction of November 2011 that has been said to be the source of all these fragments almost one year after the newest-new Sappho was announced to the world and I spotted the Galatians fragment among the Green paraphernalia exhibited in Rome? Only Christie’s and the buyer know…

Steve Green announces the repatriation of 11,500 antiquities

800px-Museumofthebible-2017-11-04-exterior-front-upIt was in the air, and finally it has become official yesterday: Mr Steve Green has announced that ca. 11,500 items in the ownership of Hobby Lobby and the Museum of the Bible are going to be repatriated. About 5,000 papyri and other antiquities are heading back to Egypt.

The decision has huge implications, most are positive and other can be positive if some further action will be taken. In line with the character of the family and their business (including MOTB), the statement released yesterday is full of rhetoric with the aim to contain damage: I have enough negativity to deal with at the minute so I prefer to skip the bullshit and concentrate on the positives.

Together with other colleagues (a very long and beautiful list!), we have carried on a campaign to raise awareness about the way the Green were behaving on the antiquities market and on scholarship too since at least 2014. It was a long way, some people and institutions (including academics, journals, and universities) could have definitely behaved better, but I have to say that for me this is a victory for good, ethical scholarship and collecting. The Museum of the Bible is now an important case study on the damages irresponsible collectors could cause, and at the same time this case provides a good model of how experts can fight to push back and change things. Yes, I am bloody happy.

The job of Mr Green & Co. is, however, far from finished. As we have asked repeatedly in the course of the years, and Lynda Albertson flagged yesterday, they must be transparent and provide the list of the dealers that sold unprovenanced material over the years. Their online database is still scanty on that side and some information that MOTB had since ever had been clearly released only recently because it became convenient to them to do so. (I refer to the entries that involve items said to have been sold by Dirk Obbink from 2010 onwards).

It should be borne in mind that some of this kind of information might be at the moment withhold because there is at least one police investigation on going, the one concerning the Egypt Exploration Society papyri theft. The Turkish dealer – who sold at least ca. 1,000 papyrus fragments, including the Sappho Green papyri, to Hobby Lobby as officially stated by Mike Holmes – might also be at the centre of law enforcement enquiries, but we will know if this is the case maybe later on. As Erin Thompson has recalled in her recent article regarding the MOTB fake Dead Sea Scrolls fragments, there are also tax implications connected with the pay-offs Hobby Lobby received over the years for donations to MOTB: perhaps there will be developments on that side too.

The focus now has to move on other collectors who have bought antiquities from the same sources as the Green. For what concerns the papyri, it is well known that a collector in Finland has bought from the same circle of Turkish dealers as the Green. Some of these papyri have been published by academics in academic journals. I am alluding to the P.Ilves, a clearly meaningless abbreviation that covers an anonymous collector. Josh McDowell and a circle of evangelical apologists have been clients of Scott Carroll and his many businesses over the years. There is at least one other collector in Europe who has also bought from the same circle of dealers, a circle that included Andy Stimer too, as we have learnt. Andy Stimer has also sold material to Christian colleges and institutions… The list can go over and over, and comprises the Larsons, who are still donating Torah scrolls to Christian colleges in the US, and have been in business with Scott Carroll.

My question at this point is: are these manuscripts going to be investigated, and eventually repatriated too, by their current owners? Or will the owners be spared from academic attention just because they are not as public and politically connoted as the Green? Finally, what about P.Sapph.Obbink? I received confirmation that the Green Sappho fragments are among the items that will be repatriated to Egypt. Have the current owner and all those who have dealt with this papyrus, including Christie’s and the editor, anything to say about past tales of provenance in the light of these developments?



The newspaper and a table cloth: Yakup Eksioglu, Scott Carroll and some Green papyri?

Mr Yakup Eksioglu, who according to information circulated by Mike Holmes is the source of the Green Sappho and many other papyri in that collection, has recently commented on two of Brent Nongbri’s posts concerning the newest-new Sappho news. The Turkish gentleman asks if we are interested in knowing the provence of the Sappho fragments (of course we are!) and denies that there are shady aspects in the history of those papyri (scroll down the comments here and here).

Since he is in the mood of speaking, I’d like to hear what he has eventually to say about some other papyri that I think also come from him and perhaps are with Mr Green.

In early November 2009 Scott Carroll announced on his public Facebook account that he was going to travel soon to Istanbul and Jerusalem for some shopping. These are indeed two most interesting cities for antiquities hunters. The first is the main location of Mr Eksioglu’s business, as he explained in his old website,, that you can still visit through (The email is the same he is using now in case you wish to contact him, which I would not recommend on the basis of my own experience). In Jerusalem there is another famous emporium, Baidun Antiquities, that according to Mike Holmes/Museum of the Bible official statements sold to Hobby Lobby two of the fragments stolen from the Egypt Exploration Society collection.

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Screenshot of the website of Mixantik as captured by the internet archive in November 2009

But let us go back to Scott Carroll’s Facebook account. Although it has now sadly disappeared, a number of us have visited it in the past while it was public and created archives of the enlightening lectures in papyrology and other disciplines Carroll delivered in the course of the years to his social media audience. On 30 November 2009 he flooded his followers with ca. 80 images of antiquities he acquired or saw during the above mentioned shopping spree for the Green and I believe other collections too (including his own). One of the images shows some papyrus fragments on a white table cloth which seems exactly the same as the one appearing in images posted by Eksioglu/Mixantik/ebuyerrrr in his Yasasgroup incarnation, as you can see in the two figures below.


Fig.1: Picture downloaded from Scott Carroll’s public Facebook page, originally posted on 30 November 2009


ebuyerrrrr Mixantic Photobucket 2

Fig. 2: Image from Yasasgroup photobucket, for background see also Paul Barford’s old blog post:

Some days later, however, Carroll posted again a picture of the same fragments of Fig. 1, in a different arrangement:

Screen Shot 2017-04-25 at 10.40.36

As you can see, the same papyri appearing in Fig. 1 are here ordered in a slightly dissimilar way. Interestingly they are lying this time on the pages of a national Egyptian newspaper. How did that newspaper and papyri arrive to Turkey and where are they now?

My interpretation would be that these were papyri fresh from the ground (as it seems from the soil still visible), excavated or obtained illegally somewhere in Egypt, wrapped up in the newspaper, and then sent to Turkey (a notorious transit-country) where they were offered for sale to irresponsible dealers/middlemen disguised as ‘academics’ like Scott Carroll and his companions.

Does Mr Eksioglu or anyone else have a better explanation?


I thank Lynda Albertson of ARCA for cross-checking notes and images with me.

I have written on Mr Eksioglu, without mentioning his name now revealed by the Green/MOTB through Holmes, in my article ‘The Green papyri and the Museum of the Bible.’ In Jill Hicks-Keeton and Cavan Concannon (eds.), The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction, 171-205. Lanham; Boulder; New York; London: Lexington Books/Fortress Academics.




Letter to Brill on the Museum of the Bible’s Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments: A Positive Outcome

In 2016 Brill published the edition of thirteen Dead Sea Scrolls fragments as part of their series dedicated to the Museum of the Bible collections (Dead Sea Scrolls Fragments in the Museum Collection, Publications of Museum of the Bible, Volume 1). Since its appearance, the volume raised serious concerns because nothing was said about the chain of ownership through which the fragments arrived in Washington D.C. in 2009-2010. In the autumn of 2018, the Museum itself had to admit that according to scientific and philological analysis at least five of the manuscripts in question were in fact modern forgeries. After the announcement, a group of academics wrote an open letter to Brill, asking for higher standards in documenting provenance and authenticity in their publications. As recently argued by archaeologists Dennis Mizzi and Jodi Magness in a very important article (published in a Brill journal), forgeries are more often than not connected with undocumented provenance, and academics must always deal first with acquisition circumstances and collection history, and later eventually address the issue of authenticity.

The letter was subscribed by over 100 academics and endorsed by the Board of Directors of the Society for Classical Studies. Brill’s reaction was immediate and positive. As a result of constructive conversations led by Brill brilliant Loes Schouten and Suzanne Mekking, I am pleased to report that Brill has decided to add a specific paragraph about provenance and authenticity in its Publication Ethics document, available on line: This binds authors to follow the policies of international academic associations in relevant fields (e.g., ASOR, AIA, SBL and SCS).

The integration of a section on these issues is a crucial step forward. It will tie anyone working with the publisher in question, from authors to editorial boards, to current professional policies. As Brill is the publisher of major journals and volumes in our fields – including classics, biblical studies, archaeology and many more – in terms of quality and quantity, their initiative can really make a difference. Hopefully their document will lead the way, and other publishers will also adopt similar measures.

News on the Newest Sappho Fragments: Back to Christie’s Salerooms


Last Thursday, The Guardian published a riveting report of the ongoing papyri crisis. Charlotte Higgins has written a compelling and remarkably clear piece, finding her way through the intricacy of the events. From my point of view, the most interesting part is the revelation that my colleague Mike Sampson will soon publish an article about a Christie’s private-treaty sale brochure that an anonymous academic source passed to him. As Mike has kindly shown me some of his material in advance, I went back to a conversation I entertained with Christie’s from 28 November 2014 to 15 January 2015. In the light of what has now emerged, in my opinion this conversation opens further questions and doubts on the newest Sappho provenance narratives, and more broadly on the mysterious ways in which ancient manuscripts move on the market.

But before delving into this epistolary, it is necessary to recap a number of facts, including some that Higgins had no space to discuss in her article but which are crucial for the points I wish to make here. As my readers know, I came to the Green mess in early 2014 not because of the Christian papyri, but indeed because of the newest Sappho fragments: P.Sapph.Obbink (in anonymous hands) and P.GC. inv. 105 (in Oklahoma City, with Hobby Lobby). However, I was soon intrigued by the whole Green endeavour, and one of their papyri, in particular, captured my attention: a small Coptic fragment with lines from the letter of Paul to Galatians, GC MS 462. As I will show in the following, this papyrus story interweaves with that of the Sappho fragments so intimately that if one forgets it, there’s the risk to miss the level of misinformation and deception disseminated (voluntarily or not) in the course of these years.

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The Galatians 2 Coptic fragment when advertised on eBay

Let us start from the beginning. In February 2014 we were informed of the existence of the newest Sappho fragments without being provided any firm detail and clear evidence about their provenance. Most of us were completely unaware that since 2009 an American millionaire was hunting through the manuscripts market for the joy of dealers and some academics too. As I became intrigued by this multifarious crowd, the following April I went to visit the Green exhibit, Verbum Domini II, at Vatican City where I spotted our Galatians Coptic papyrus and immediately realised that it was the same fragment that in October-November 2012 was offered on sale through a Turkish eBay account called MixAntik. At that time, MixAntik was operating in violation of Turkish law for the export of antiquities and never provided any documented provenance for that or any other fragment sold in the course of the years. I asked David Trobisch, the newly appointed director of the Green collection, some questions on the papyrus origin: did the Green buy Galatians on eBay? His answer was that he was new to the job and the Green files were in such state that he was unable to provide any information at that stage.

The first big turn in the Sappho and Galatians provenance tale happened the following autumn of 2014. Right before a session on issues of provenance organized by the Society of Biblical Literature at the Annual Meeting of San Diego, I was timely informed by Trobisch (my respondent at that panel) that the Green Sappho and Paul Galatians fragments came all from a lot sold at auction by Christie’s London in November 2011 (I duly reported this after the conference in this blog post). Dirk Obbink – Trobisch added – would have provided full details on the recovery of the Sappho fragments in a forthcoming paper to be read at a conference the following January. Right back from San Diego I started a conversation with Christie’s (28 November is the date of my first email), as I was completing an article on all these and other matters (later published in the Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists), and wanted to have my facts straight.

January 2015 came, and Obbink’s paper was not only read to the Annual Meeting of the Society for Classical Studies, but also disseminated online (it is still available from here). The key section about the Sappho provenance was this:

“As reported and documented by the London owner of the ‘Brothers’ and Kypris Poems’ fragment, all of the fragments were recovered from a fragment of papyrus cartonnage formerly in the collection of David M. Robinson and subsequently bequeathed to the Library of the University of Mississippi. The Library later de-accessioned it in order to purchase Faulkner materials. It was one of two pieces flat inside a sub-folder (folder ‘E3’) inside a main folder (labelled ‘Papyri Fragments; Gk’), one of 59 packets of papyri fragments sold at auction at Christie’s in London in November 2011.”

Then the article placed the papyri in question in the Arsinoite, furnished some bibliography and also the name of the Cairo dealer who sold papyri to Robinson in 1954, Sultan Maguid Sameda. As for the Green fragments, the author explained:

“A group of twenty-some smaller fragments extracted from this piece, being not easily identified or re-joined, were deemed insignificant and so traded independently on the London market by the owner, and made their way from the same source into the Green Collection in Oklahoma City.” 

The paper was later published in the form of an academic article (“Interim notes on ‘Two New Poems of Sappho’”, ZPE 194 (2015), 1–8) and the story repeated more or less in the same way in an interview to Live Science. (For more details on later sometimes conflicting versions, check out Brent Nongbri’s blog, and Uhlig and Sampson’s recent article for Eidolon).

Most believed the narrative, but for me it remained still problematic because neither the author nor the owners provided any solid document to support the purported collection history. On top of this, the Green Galatians fragment had been said to have the same provenance too. I had difficulties believing that someone had bought a lot of papyri at Christie’s in 2011 with a potentially good provenance, found a fragment from a letter of Paul and then a year later offered it on sale not through Christie’s or any other main auction house or dealer but rather through a most bizarre eBay account. Moreover, MixAntik never mentioned a Christie’s auction–why not? It would have provided plausible provenance. In a story full of morons like this one, random silly behaviour is always a possibility. Still, I wonder…

Anyway, after Christmas holidays and some reminders, on January 10, 2015 Donadoni finally sent me the following information about both Sappho and Paul: 

“These were part of a large collection of cartonnage fragments – they weren’t individual papyri whose texts could be identified. As Dr Obbink explained yesterday [Obbink read his paper at the conference on the 9 January], the Sappho fragments were recovered from cartonnage that we sold in 2011 – ie [sic] layers upon layers of recycled strips of papyrus glued together to be used as book bindings or mummy coverings. Some of these strips may have had text on them – often legal texts, shopping lists, or receipts of little value. But the only way to recover them and to identify the texts that aren’t immediately visible is to soak them in a warm water solution and chisel away at the layers. You will understand that when we receive such consignments, we sell them as they are, and identify what we can: we do not and cannot have the capabilities to dissolve other people’s property in the off-chance we may discover something of note.”

To this I answered asking if Christie’s had pictures of the cartonnage as it was when consigned for the auction. On January 13, Donadoni explained: “There are no further images beyond what is already shown in the 2011 catalogue.”

As many know, first and foremost the poor Green crowd (they are martyrs in this respect, I assure you), I can drive people crazy with my stubborn questions. In fact when I insisted again asking how the hell was Christie’s sure that these fragments came from that lot since they only saw layers of compressed papyri, a rightly exasperated and mad at me Donadoni concluded (14 January 2015): 

”I am sorry if I have not been clear. I’ll try to be as concise as possible: I confirm that we are not simply relying on the word of the collector. The provenance is as stated. There is no doubt that the specific pieces came from the cartonnage that we sold in 2011, there is clear evidence to that effect. They were not identified at the time because they needed recovering (and thus dissolving in a warm-water solution) or piecing together from a myriad of tiny fragments.”

But now that we have seen the private sale dossier, I would ask Christie’s: What is the ‘clear evidence’ that they had but that nobody else was able to see? Is it perhaps the layered papyri cartonnage, which is reproduced in the pdf brochure? Did they take that picture in house? That picture, in particular, seems at odds with their repeated statement that there was no other image besides the one in the catalogue: Is there a simple explanation I am unable to understand? This is all very confusing, you would agree. I find interesting that according to Sampson’s metadata analysis, Christie’s brochure in its current version was pulled together roughly between 13 January and 26 February 2015 – more or less while I was entertaining these email conversations with Donadoni – using a version created before, in 2013. As Higgins reports too, the date of the Sappho ‘cartonnage’ digital shot is instead 14 February 2012, seven days after Scott Carroll had already shown the Green Sappho fragments in their shiny glass frame at one event in Atlanta, as documented in a video ( Is anyone able to explain how this happened?

In the Green quarters, however, details of the provenance story of their Sappho and Galatians fragments were destined to change dramatically. In the summer of 2017, on the wake of the Iraqi tablets scandal, the Coptic Galatians papyrus was again under the spotlight, and in a much more problematic way for the Green. The year before, I had discovered by pure chance the identity of the man behind MixAntik (morphed into ebuyerrrr in the meanwhile), reported it to eBay and the police since he was still selling unprovenanced papyri, and received unpleasant threats as a result later on; meanwhile the investigations of Candida Moss and Joel Baden, reported in their book and magazine articles, demonstrated that there had been many more Green acquisitions from Turkey and Turkish sellers, with meetings in Istanbul and London too. In short, it turned out that a certain number of the Green papyri came from MixAntik aka ebuyerrrr and close sources (for more details, see my chapter in The Museum of the Bible: A Critical Introduction. Fortress Academic).

On 20 July 2017 The Times informed that Egypt had started an investigation on the whereabouts of the Coptic Galatians fragment; asked for comments, Trobisch still referred to the trusted dealer and the Christie’s auction story. But the following autumn, that story evaporated. On November 17, 2017 The Chronicle of Higher Education posed a similar question on Galatians to the newly appointed director of the Green Scholars Initiative, Mike Holmes:

“It was bought from a dealer in good faith, and the dealer provided certain information,” says Holmes. “That information turned out to be incorrect.” Whether that dealer purchased the fragment from eBay is still unknown, according to Holmes. As a result, he says, it won’t be seen in the museum.

To my knowledge, Christie’s has never commented on this incredible turn of the story: How do they explain all this? Were they also said something that they just believed? Perhaps the Green trusted dealer was the buyer of the famous 2011 lot 1 and Donadoni had no reason to doubt their word? Who knows? I confess I feel lost.

 Anyway, if Paul and Sappho go together – as I thought at the time – then the provenance of the Green Sappho fragments should also be under revision, but when I asked the Green (i.e., Trobisch, Holmes, and also Jeff Kloha), the answer always was that documents were insufficient or lacking at the Hobby Lobby archives. To be thorough, in our last email exchange of last July, David Trobisch wrote me something notably different, that is: ‘I’m surprised to hear that you think the Sappho fragment came from the same auction as the Coptic Galatians fragment.’ In total dismay, I reminded him that he officially said that in many occasions, including to The Times. Was he possibly ironic? I never received an answer back. Bless him. On the contrary, I always received answers from my lovely friend Mike Holmes, a Green man I trust, and his last words on their Sappho fragments last summer were:

“It has not been possible to identify the seller of the Sappho fragment[s] at this point due to the lack of consistent record keeping and vague invoices in the early years of the collection. The Sappho fragment is not listed as a specific item on any invoice in museum records”

And here we are, my friends, stuck in between a flood of missing paperwork and the secrecy of Christie’s and the antiquities market sales, which are protected by current laws: privacy and non-disclosure are perfectly legal. What will happen now? Who knows…! The Greenery has started an internal cleaning exercise, the outcomes of which are, however, still unpredictable and controlled by a platoon of lawyers; on the other hand, we don’t know anything (yet) about the owner or owners of the largest Sappho fragment and their thoughts on this mess. I think they must be nervous as they paid a fortune (around £ 800,000 is the guess of a Guardian informed source) for a lovely manuscript (the case in the Christie’s brochure though, ma che brutta and a bit vulgar! I hope they found a new one), which however turned out to have a provenance background with some grey areas. As a result, the market price must have definitely lowered down in the meanwhile. In case the grey areas will turn into black, I think that a private settlement with the auction house and the sellers will be eventually looked for and the insurance will step in. The papyrus will disappear and nothing about it and the settlement will ever reach us, average citizens and real co-owners of the Sappho fragments, because current legislation protects the privacy of these types of “discreet” (i.e., secret) agreements. In other words, current legislation protects wealthy anonymous collectors, even wealthier auction houses like Christie’s, and the throng of experts working with them. Certainly that legislation does not help fostering a cultural environment in which ancient manuscripts are studied and protected by academics, dealers and collectors with higher ethical standards than those this story has brought to light.




A New Article on Palaeographic Dating of Codices

Variant Readings

The latest issue of Journal for the Study of the New Testament contains a group of articles that emerged from an SBL session in 2015 arranged by Roberta Mazza on problems of dating ancient manuscripts. In addition to Roberta’s introductory essay, which discusses some of her work on the Rylands collection, there are articles by Malcolm Choat (“Dating Papyri: Familiarity, Instinct and Guesswork”) and by the Ancient Ink Laboratory at Columbia University and New York University (“Dating Ancient Egyptian Papyri through Raman Spectroscopy: Concept and Application to the Fragments of the Gospel of Jesus’ Wife and the Gospel of John”).

My own contribution is “Palaeographic Analysis of Codices from the Early Christian Period: A Point of Method.” Here is the abstract:

It is often said that palaeographic analysis of Greek literary manuscripts from the Roman era has progressed from an aesthetic judgment to more of a science, thanks largely to…

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