The new Sappho fragments acquisition history: what we have learnt so far

So-called Sappho from Pompeii (Naples, MANN 9084) From Wikicommons

So-called Sappho from Pompeii (Naples, MANN 9084)
From Wikicommons

The latest information provided by the main editor of the new Sappho fragments in his paper (D. Obbink, “Provenance, Authenticity, and Text of the New Sappho Papyri”, available online) confirms what I have written already about anonymous collectors and the perils academics face when dealing with them. I want to be clear on my opinion from the opening: the acquisition circumstances narrative so far could be absolutely plausible, and some unclear passages perfectly explainable, but we have not been given yet direct access to all the data for following this narrative. In other words, what I am questioning is the quality of the information delivered so far by the editors of the Sappho fragments, the “anonymous collector”, the Green collection and Christie’s department of manuscripts. However, I am still hoping that all the persons involved will add solid evidence on the provenance of the fragments and also of the Coptic Galatians 2 papyrus, which comes apparently from the same Christie’s lot. Solid evidence means: images of the cartonnage before dismounting (which must be available since folders are mentioned in some details in the article), documents attesting the acquisition history of the pieces, and the name of the ‘trusted dealer’ who sold Coptic Galatians 2 to the Green collection in 2013 after the fragment went from Christie’s elegant London showrooms (2011) to the eBay Turkish bazaar of MixAntik (2012).

I have already argued that anonymous collectors represent an issue for academics. Anonymity is a right, but it brings along all sorts of complications: important details might not be fully disclosed to the audience, not even to the scholars involved in the publication of the pieces, and things can go very wrong, as the case of the ‘Gospel of Jesus’s Wife’ has demonstrated. The Sappho fragments’ case illustrates my point and goes well beyond matters of simple privacy. Let me explain why. The first information on the London Sappho’s owner that we received from Obbink (“New Poems by Sappho”, The Times Literary Supplement 5 February 2014), and Bettany Huges (“Lover, Poet, Muse and a Ghost Made Real,” The Sunday Times, 2 February 2014) was as follows:

  1. The owner is a collector based in London.
  2. He is an elderly gentleman, and the acquisition history of the papyrus is obscure but connected with a German officer: “The elderly owner of our new Sappho papyrus wishes to remain anonymous, and its provenance is obscure (it was originally owned, it seems, by a high-ranking German officer), but he was determined its secrets should not die with him.” (Bettany Huges). I want to make clear to the non-UK audience that Bettany Huges is not just a journalist, but an ancient historian who should know what she is talking about.

Nothing was said regarding the link with the Green collection’s fragments, about which we were briefly informed through the pre-print version of the forthcoming Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (from now on ZPE) edition. That version was later retired from the web. The pre-print, however, did not contain any detail on how fragments from the same roll came to be dispersed in different collections, one in London, the other in Okhlahoma City, and no answer was given on the point in either public or private conversations (e.g. my question on the New Sappho fragments blog). Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 16.07.25 Although we were confident that new details would appear in the definitive printed version of the article, not a word was spent on the point, as we discovered in April (S. Burris, J. Fish, D. Obbink, “New Fragments of Book 1 of Sappho,” ZPE 189 (2014) 1-28; D. Obbink, “Two Poems by Sappho,” ZPE 189 (2014) 32-49). An article on the conservation of the fragments was promised by Obbink in footnote 2: “For reasons of space, I describe the conservation of the papyri as part of a separate, forthcoming study”. I want to underline that the topic of the forthcoming study was conservation, not provenance, although we were expecting clarification of that too. “Conservation”, to me at least, sounded as if the dismounting of the cartonnage had been performed by the editors themselves, who are serious professionals, with all the documentation included, i.e. images of the material before the intervention and detailed description and images of the dismounting process, as is normal practice nowadays. But that was not the case, as we have since discovered.

The new paper tells a different story. I understood that the version of events was going to be different, when David Trobisch, director of the Green collection, suddenly started to mention in conversations and emails that both the Coptic Galatians 2 and the Sappho fragments (all of them) had in their acquisition history files a Christie’s auction of 2011. They were part of lot 1. Here is the section of the lot’s brief description from the printed catalogue (let’s hope I will not be prosecuted for infringing some nightmarish copyright issue: Fine printed books and manuscripts including a selection from the Malcolm Jr. Churchill collection and photo books from the Calle collection, Monday 28 November 2011, p. 2). Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 16.11.14 I do not see any good reason why this key information was not given before since it could have avoided us all the polemics about the provenance issues, do you? Could anyone of the people involved provide an explanation, please? But there is more. First of all, the portrait of the anonymous collector has dramatically changed from Bettany Huges’ elderly gentleman to “an owner and his staff” who dismounted the cartonnage “by dissolving in a warm-water solution” (p. 2), and sold unwanted fragments again on the London antiquities market from where they were rescued by Mr Green: “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” (p. 3). This gentleman knows what he is doing, doesn’t he? Secondly, the cartonnage is no longer described as mummy panel cartonnage, which had opened up so many problems and question marks for the date and dismantling process, but as “domestic or industrial cartonnage: it might have been employed e.g. for a book-cover or book-binding” (p. 3). It seems that Obbink was confused on this point from what the owner thought, which is strange for someone with his experience and who has written on the topic (D. Obbink, ‘P. Artemid.: The Artefact’, in: K. Brodersen, J. Elsner, Images and Texts on the “Arthemidorus Papyrus”, Stuttgart 2009), but fair enough, we all make mistakes in our research.

In order to have a better grasp on the papyri before they went through all these so far undocumented treatments, and to have official confirmation that both Coptic Galatians 2 and the Sappho cartonnage were part of Christie’s lot 1, I contacted the auction house via email. Eugenio Donadoni (manuscripts department) was so kind to confirm via email that the source is that lot. When I asked for images and documents relative to the 59 folders and their content, he told me there aren’t any: the only record is the short entry in the printed catalogue. Believe it or not, Christie’s has no snapshot or any other form of catalogue file for the lot. When I raised the point that this lack of documentation – which Mr Donadoni said is not unusual – opens a breach in the acquisition history of ancient artefacts, and is problematic for everybody from academics to responsible collectors and dealers, Donadoni said they have budget issues and too much work with too few personnel. I understand that Christie’s is a firm and not a museum, but can my readers see the threat the lack of records is to world cultural heritage? The ‘deemed insignificant’ fragments put on sale again by the anonymous owner risked to go lost: Sappho fragments could have vanished forever. Actually, if this is not an unusual behaviour, as Donadoni said, there are good reasons to believe we have already lost something in the past.

The adventures of Christie’s 2011 Lot 1 shed also light on the damages the deaccessioning of ancient artefacts and manuscripts in the ownership of institutions (museums, colleges, universities, etc.) can cause to antiquities. According to Obbink’s paper (pp. 1-2), Sappho’s cartonnage comes from group 3 of the Robinson papyri bequeathed to the University of Mississippi, which is described by W.H. Willis 1961 (‘The New Collection of Papyri at the University of Mississippi” in Proceedings of the IX International Congress of Papyrology, p. 382). Screen Shot 2015-01-15 at 16.53.12 Now the dispersion of the Robinson collection is the result of the Mississippi University Library’s decision to sell their papyri for buying something else, not an uncommon practice even in the recent past. It is worth remembering that Christie’s lot 1 included some Robinson papyri, but also others from different sources (“A number of fragments belonged to the collection of David M. Robinson, a large part of which was subsequently bequeathed to the Library of the University of Mississippi…Two of the packets were part of the collection of P. Deaton”, this last I believe should be the collection of the Egyptologist John Deaton who sold papyri to Brigham Young University in 1980). In other words, the dynamics behind papyri emerging from the antiquities market, through auction catalogues or the web, are far more complex than we might think, and not keeping detailed records of all these passages inevitably leads to the loss of antiquities and/or their legal (or illegal) provenance.

To conclude: despite a number of questions are still open, the Sappho provenance narrative can make perfect sense once images and documents will be provided in the printed edition of the paper and in the Museum of the Bible online catalogue, which was expected for December (according to David Trobisch’s response to my paper at the Society of Biblical Literature Annual Meeting), but I believe has been delayed. “To make sense” is far from meaning “to make people (at least me) happy”. This case shows once more the damages the lack of careful treatment of acquisition history in manuscripts’ publications can cause to scholarship, and more broadly how many issues academics still have to solve regarding policies and personal behaviours to adopt in dealing with the antiquities market.


3 thoughts on “The new Sappho fragments acquisition history: what we have learnt so far

  1. All of this brings the well-known dictum “Money is the root of all evil” in mind and please remember ‘Mundus vult decipi’ (Erasmus).

  2. Thanks for making available information that concerns the West’s cultural legacy… especially the risks to it enabled or brought about by those who in many instances are assumed to be its curators and custodians.
    Thanks also for a very interesting blog.

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