There are merchants in the temple: selling and buying ancient Biblical artefacts

Homepage of Ancient Asset Investments (screenshot)

Homepage of Ancient Asset Investments (screenshot)

As I pointed out in previous posts, papyri and more in general ancient manuscripts have become very popular among North American Christian apologists and I have found another interesting prove of what is happening.

Ancient Asset Investment is a firm which aims at bringing together collectors who wish to sell their artefacts and potential purchasers. The business website explains the process in simple and clear terms; this is a world where everybody is nice and have good manners, according to a terminology where prices are never mentioned, only values.

Those who sell, defined as clients, “have the unique opportunity to leverage the value of ancient artifacts to the greatest advantage, be it personal or financial”. Purchasers are not normal collectors, but “guardians” who “share irreplaceable antiquities with the world while protecting them for future generations.” The firm provides access to scholars who can provide “research” and “appraisals“: and guess who are these scholars? Of course the Manuscript Research Group (MRG) that as you already know is the creation of my myth: Scott Carroll.

“AAI has an exclusive business relationship with Scott Carroll Manuscripts and Rare Books. Dr. Carroll is a leading expert with unparalleled access to undocumented and unidentified artifacts in the overseas markets”

Among other things, an interesting YouTube presentation is mentioning “street-level foreign sources” for acquisitions. This sounds intriguing (or sinister, depending on your point of view on the matter).

As for the “guardian” model, this is another high profile character of my blog: Josh McDowell.

Yes, we have reached a new level….

Josh McDowell as a testimony for AAI - screenshot from AAI website

Josh McDowell as a testimony for AAI – screenshot from AAI website

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25 thoughts on “There are merchants in the temple: selling and buying ancient Biblical artefacts

  1. Very interesting Roberta;

    – and, in principle, not a bad thing. Perhaps a 21st century equivalent of what John and Enriqueta Rylands were doing in the late 19th century; buying up biblical texts and books, and gifting them to a scholarly library; in the hope it would advance their Christian apologetic aspirations.

    The worrying bit is that both supply of artefacts, and any associated research, is provided through an ‘exclusive’ relationship to Scott Carroll’s two creatures: Scott Carroll Manuscripts and Rare Books; and the Mancuscript Research Grouo. I like neither Dr Carroll, nor that term ‘exclusive’.

    And it is less than honest, to advise purchasers of ancient papyi; ” Each item is unique. There will never be more of them. Those we have cannot be replaced”; while merrily attacking ancient blocks of cartonnage, doing just that.

    Your descriptions may be a bit awry, though. As I read it, the ‘clients’ are purchasers, not sellers. The ‘guardians’ are not purchasers, but institutions of religion or learning; who will accept and conserve the artefacts; and make them accessible to believers and scholars.

    And – to be fair – the website is upfront in talking about ‘prices’. The word that is striking by its absence is ‘provenance’. They guarantee to replace an artefact if its appraised value turns out to be less than the price paid, but do not say what will happen, if it turns out that Scott Carroll had no right to sell the artefact in the first place.

    • As the readers of this blog and my students know I am not particularly proud of our colonial past. Despite most of the material which came to Manchester and elsewhere was legally excavated and exported, I would not define what we have done in Egypt and elsewhere as ethical according to nowadays standards. I am thankful we are not living in late Victorian Britain, and I would not use late Victorian scholars, dealers and collectors as a model for today scholars, dealers and collectors.

      Your reading is awry too. If you pay attention to what the website suggests together with previous Scott’s exploits you would realise that what he seems to do is in fact to put people’s interests together: people who wish to sell their collections, and purchasers who want to buy for themselves or for guardians (those pious institutions you’re listing) in order to obtain tax deductions besides glory.

      As for provenance, what he says at some point is frightening: “street-level foreign sources”.

      In all this discussion I am puzzled by the fact that you and others are constantly recalling us the laws (since we own it, it’s ok), and tend to forget ethics. Besides the fact that some of those pious American colleges that received EES papyri in the past have sold them later on or mistreated them badly (have a check to P Oxy 1077). If we want to remember, let’s remember everything.

      • I am sure you have access to background and expertise that I don’t, Roberta; but I would like to hope it would be possible to configure some sort of 21st century philanthropic vehicle whereby affluent individuals might contribute to the conservation of historic texts, and support access to those texts for current and future readers and scholars. Maybe a foundation that provided a means by which pious British Muslims could support the conservation of historic Qur’anic libraries in Mali? Just so long as Scott Carroll and his ilk are kept far away (though I do note that mosques don’t feature in his prospectus of potential guardians). I don’t see pious philanthropy as unethical or neo-colonial in itself; or as inconsistent with scholarly principles. Nor do I see it as wrong to claim back tax on philanthropic donations; I seem to be filling in Gift-aid statements all the time. Isn’t that what the tax deduction rules were intended for?

        But Scott Carroll isn’t interested in Islamic texts (no more than Grenfell and Hunt were). What he does claim to offer is a means for clients to have access to sellers of central European Torah scrolls, and of papyrus fragments from Egypt , without having to meet them . If provenance of papyri is problematic; provenance of European Torah Scrolls is worse. So I don’t see Dr Carroll as offering to put people together, rather to keep them apart; so that clients don’t have to deal directly with ‘street-level foreign sources’, outside of national and international conventions; or with blood on their hands.

        And I personally do not say, nor do I believe, that ‘since we own it, it’s OK. Ownership is a trust, not an entitlement; but then maybe that is my own piety showing.

      • “As the readers of this blog and my students know I am not particularly proud of our colonial past” + “not … ethical according to nowdays standards”
        One way you can show that you are really zealous about this is to refuse to work on any piece of papyrus that was acquired during that colonial past or even to make mention of them. And since the colonial past continues in the practices of Scott Carroll you can show you are serious about this by refusing to ever mention his name on you blog
        Somehow I suspect you will do neither

  2. You’re absolutely right Tom: there’s nothing wrong with responsible philanthropy. Allow me to doubt that what we are observing in this case could be defined as responsible philanthropy fostered by a responsible dealer (I’d like to remind the audience that Scott Carroll was fired first by the Van Kampen, then by Mr Green: there should be some reason, or not?).
    As for the Muslim points you’re making throughout, I do not get them. As I do not get why these artefacts should be more special to Christians than to all the rest of the world: they are world cultural heritage whatever your religious affiliation might be. They are important to us all.

  3. I do agree with your last point Roberta.

    However, some religious texts may have acquired through their history such specific significance, that their appropriation for other purposes by those of another religious tradition or none, could be a gross intrusion.

    I don’t know whether Josh McDowell’s personal Torah Scroll is a Holocaust witness; but I have the deeply disturbing impression that he wouldn’t use it any differently if it was. Such an object, in my view, must always now carry one meaning above all, and always be presented within a particular and irreducible historic and religious context. To freight it with a Christian message about ‘the meticulous care and preservation of the Scriptures’, is a betrayal of that context; redefining the whole history of Jewish textual transmission into an essential preliminary stage in the providential incorporation of the Hebrew scriptures into the Reformation Bible.

    In my view.

    • I tell a lie;

      Josh’s Torah scroll is a Holocaust witness

      “You will be able to handle and photograph the Lodz scroll that miraculously survived the Black Death, The Reformation, The Age of Enlightenment and the Holocaust. You will also see biblical and classical scrolls and manuscript fragments hidden from human eyes for 1800+ years. Together we will unmask ancient manuscript fragments.”

    • Roberta Mazza: I find it equally amusing when somebody attacks the professional ethics of what others are doing in other collections when they are the beneficiaries of similar practices carried out in the past in their own collection. Please remind me – how were the papyri you study acquired and how was the collection you curate created? As we say in English: hypocrisy.

      • The Rylands collection was created through different legal purchases on the antiquities market as you can read in the following recent articles:
        R. Mazza, ‘Graeco-Roman Egypt at Manchester. The Formation of the Rylands Papyri Collection’, in: P. Schubert (ed.), Actes du 26e Congrès international de papyrologie (Genève, 16-21 août 2010) (Genève 2012) 499-507.
        M. Choat, ‘Lord Crawford’s search for papyri: on the origin of the Rylands papyri collection’, in P. Schubert (ed.), Actes du 26e Congrès international de papyrologie cit., 141-147.
        The last purchases were made by B.P. Grenfell in 1920.

        It was not only legal, but also ethical according to Victorian standards. In case you haven’t noticed yet, we now live in the 21st century, and we have had important legislation and ethical debates on the exporting and market of antiquities, especially from the 1970 onwards.

        I am aware of the fact that many people would like to go back to a world regulated by a literal interpretation of the Bible: so I understand why you struggle so much with the idea that laws and ethics change over time.

        Do please continue commenting on this blog: I am delighted to give you the opportunity to expose how inconsistent your way of reasoning is. I find you hilarious, as I said.

      • Hello Roberta, thankyou for reminding me of these 2 publications. In re-reading them I find the case situation is exactly as I previously noted.
        In a previous thread I noted that apart from the Oxyrhynchus papyri most papyri have no known provenance. You disagreed with me but were unable to provide provenance to a selection of papyri. In your article on the Rylands papyri this lack of provenance is also evident – even though you presumably have unrestricted access to whatever documentation exists.
        There are fakes. There are papyri acquired by illegal excavation. There are papyri that may have been looted from Egypt. There are means to sanitise these papyri with fake documentation and a history of the papyri being in the family collection for many generations. On the other hand there are numerous papyri (and mummy masks) that have been family collections for many generations.
        Scott Carroll may have access to genuine papyri and mummy masks that were acquired under the same laws and ethics that the Rylands papyri were obtained. And while we are all free to wonder if what he has access to is illegitimate or legitimate, I will keep repeating the point – questions can end up pushed to the point of being accusations.
        In a few years – I have no idea when – we will presumably see the first volumes of the Green papyri published, and hopefully they will contain reference to the provenance documentation that goes all the way back to the moment the papyri were found. But this documentation might be limited because, like the documentation of the Rylands collection and most other public collections, there is very little for private collections.
        I hope you find this hilarious.

  4. Roberta, am I right that in addition to the many other ethical issues, this is also basically a financial scam? The way this works is you pay $333,333 for a papyrus fragment of the NT. The same people who sell you this will also give you a valuation which declares this papyrus fragment is worth $1,000,000. You give this to a seminary. You get tax deductions worth $1,000,000. The company gets $333,333 (minus whatever they paid the broke PhD student or unemployed NT Textual Critic for the scholarly evaluation, minus costs [palmolive, warm water, large sink etc.]). So there are two victims of the fraud: i) the clients (they love the 2/3 discount of course, but never asked about the cost price); ii) the state (they are cheated of the tax revenues). There are other possible victims further back as well (e.g. the scholars who will never have any confidence in the details of the manuscript; the family whose scroll was stolen by the Nazis; the student who discovers this 800 year old scroll is only 200 years old; or 50 years old; or made last month in a fake-factory, the plausibility of evangelical biblical scholarship, etc. etc. ).

    • Yes, I think you are potentially right on the financial scam although we are unable to know the details of the transactions so we can’t be sure of what is the price paid and then declared to the tax revenues office, for instance, in the cases listed by Paul Barford (http://paul-barford.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/commercialising-assets-of-past-in.html).
      It is legal to sell and buy manuscripts of legal provenance, and it is a very good thing that donors obtain tax rebates, but as your comment is rightly showing the implications related with the covered, reserved nature of such transactions put a number of subjects at risks, from the clients down to the scholars and scholarship.
      That’s why I am insisting since a year by now with academics and scholars to be extremely careful with publishing: we publish, and the price goes up. This is not necessarily bad, but certainly has implications that we tend often to forget.
      Besides this, I think we must exercise pressure over collections and collectors in order to obtain full, public access to acquisition/collecting history documents or to explain clearly why these are eventually unavailable (in publications or websites). Obviously we will not have a perfect world because it is easy to fabricate not only fake manuscripts but also fake documents attesting their acquisition and export circumstances; but at least we will have the possibility to exercise some control. I believe open access will also stimulate and enhance collaborations with the police, museums, honest dealers and other subjects in order to keep the situation under some control and possibly solve doubtful cases. Vernon Rapley of V&A Museum has given an enlightening paper on this at my conference last October (https://facesandvoices.wordpress.com/to-publish-or-not-to-publish/programme/vernon-rapley/ )
      Will you ask Mr Green to do this? Can we start with the collecting history and acquisition documents of the famous Coptic Galatians 2?
      Sorry Peter, I could not resist. But you already know I am an evil Italian lady…:-)

      • Mike Holmes said: “For every item published under the auspices of GSI, the goal will be to give, as part of the initial publication, as much detail as necessary regarding (a) provenance, both ancient and modern (subject, of course, to any legal restrictions attached to the terms of purchase); (b) authenticity; and (c) date—along with, of course, all the other information that usually accompanies such publications.” (http://michaelwholmes.com/posts-and-comments-2/)

  5. Peter, first of all we will have to wait until 2017 for the papyri while at this point I am extremely worried for what we have seen so far: I want to recall here that the biggest part of the Green papyri was bought by Scott Carroll and retrieved from mummy masks by him and papyrologists on the GSI payroll.
    Secondly, I am very worried about “the legal restrictions attached to the terms of purchase” that will be used at length except for the very un-worrying cases of deaccessioned Oxyrhynchus papyri, Bodmer et similar: I bet I will never have access to the acquisition documents and collection history of Galatians 2. But I will be glad to be surprised!
    Honestly, so far I haven’t seen the change of direction I was hoping for with the arrival of Trobisch. Lots of words, almost no facts (except that the dismounting of mummy masks has finally stopped — although there was some last summer in Oxford, I was told).

  6. Matthew Hamilton: yes, I find a man who endlessly repeats nonsense comparisons between past and present situations, and who believes that from Scott Carroll can come some good honestly hilarious. Keep up entertaining us, please.

    • Roberta: “I would not use late Victorian scholars, dealers and collectors as a model for today scholars, dealers and collectors” – and yet scholars in late Victorian period studied MSS without provenance only slightly more that todays scholars.
      Rightly or wrongly, the present situation is that excepting Oxyrhynchus most papyri do not have the documentation that leads back to provenance. You disagreed and asked for an example of this. I provided the example in a list of 19 early MSS of Genesis, but the list could have been made up of MSS from any book of the Bible with similar results. I’m still waiting on a reply from you that either acknowledges the general lack of provenance (I expect Hell will freeze over first) or that includes provenance for the MSS (a second ice age in Hell?)
      Of course you may want to note that the list is mostly made up of MSS that were acquired under the laws and ethics of the past whereas recently published MSS of Genesis (or any other book of the Bible, or other early Christian and Jewish texts, or even other texts) have documentation that leads back to provenance, but where is the evidence for this?
      Aland’s Kurzgefasste Liste, van Haelst’s Catalogue and Treu’s Christliche Papyri 1940-1967 represent MSS found under the past situation, but moving to the present situation through Treu’s latter lists of Christliche Papyri and on to Romer’s lists (most recent I have is from 2007, I’m not aware of any later than this) shows no obvious changes, provenance of “Herkunft unbekannt” appears to be the most common after Oxyrhynchus, or perhaps even more common. Apologies, I don’t have the time to crunch the numbers just now but feel free to do this and correct me if I’m wrong – not with rhetoric but with evidence.
      Outside of biblical and other early Christian and Jewish texts the same appears to be true in Testi recentemente pubblicati where apart from Oxyrhynchus the most common provenance appears to be unknown, the second most common is for the place to be given with a question mark indicating uncertainty. Most recent copy of Testi recentemente pubblicati I have at hand is from 2006 so if the situation has changed in the past 9 years please correct me if I’m wrong – not with rhetoric but with evidence.
      I look forward to the evidence you have that might put an end to my hilarious nonsense, but somehow I expect it won’t be forthcoming.

      • Dear Matthew, I totally disagree with you as you perfectly know because my point is not about provenance in the sense of archaeological finding but about collecting history and acquisition circumstances of pieces that have left Egypt after 1972 (Unesco resolution enforcement, although I’d like 1950 even better since that’s the Egyptian important change of legislation on the matter). I honestly do not understand why you are so bothered I disagree with you. We get your point, alright? Now, could you please start your own blog if you eventually wish to go on and on with this attempt? I promise I’ll visit it. Thank you!

  7. Hello Roberta, the unfortunate situation of provenance post 1972 is that there are few ways for us to know if the MSS (or mummy masks) currently in the market were initially acquired pre or post 1972, or pre or post 1950. They may go through many hands without any documentation. One of my concerns with the current concern with documentation – and I personally would like more documentation – is that it will probably backfire. Past dealers would sell MSS without provenance to protect their supplies from both competitors and from the buyers who might otherwise buy closer to the source, leaving the dealer out of the equation. Alternatively, they would make up provenance based on a provenance that boosted the price – and a wrong provenance is far worse than an unknown provenance in the study of the MSS. Current dealers if faced with documentation requirements could easily fake these (I won’t discuss the techniques online) resulting in wrong provenance. And unfortunately the documentation requirements will do little to prevent illegal digging or looting when it comes to some very savvy dealers

  8. Dear All,
    This is Todd Hillard, owner of Ancient Asset Investments (A name that was chosen in haste that I have never cared for). First, thank you so much for caring enough about what we do to give it such thoughtful criticism. We are such a small company that I’m humbly shocked that anyone even noticed us! Second, please keep it up. We are a malleable, morphing entity and objective criticism like this very helpful. Just this week, a Cambridge student shared concerns about the way we “coordinate” appraisals. His concerns were valid. We are completely revamping our protocol to ensure that there is neither appearance nor potential for conflict of interest.
    I’m also realizing that my choices of word on the website are leading to many, many misconceptions on different blogs. (see http://paul-barford.blogspot.ca/2015/02/commercialising-assets-of-past-in.html which I hope to respond to tonight) We were redesigning or website anyway, and have chosen to shut it down until February 25 to make updates and clarifications… so your input at this point is very valuable.
    For example, the term “street level sources” is causing legitimate concern with you all. Bad word choice meant to convey that we can acquire scrolls relatively inexpensively. In reality, nearly all of our scrolls come from genizahs and forgotten private collections where they have been gathering dust for decades, if not hundreds of years. Our vision truly is to get these items into the hands of “guardians” who will care for them and share them with the world again. Sincerely, even if you don’t fit in our “client/guardian” model, we will do our best to place a scroll on loan if you can truly give it usefulness again.
    But poor morphological choices are only part of it. I realize there are substantial ethical and philosophical issues. If any of you have concerns, I’m all ears.
    Yes, we are a for-profit entity. After 18 months of work with accountants and attorneys, that was deemed the best way to make sure customs, duties and taxes were properly paid, create a buffer between non-profits and, yes, put some food on our tables.
    Again, I would be thankful for more objective criticism as we move forward.
    Roberta, is this the best place to field questions and receive concerns? If not, please feel free to contact me through personal email. Todd.hillard@gmail.com

    • Dear Todd,
      thank you for intervening here, you are very welcome. I would love to hear more about these private collectors and abandoned Genizah deposits: in which countries? How do you get to know about them? How can you be sure about the legal provenance of the objects in these collections? And what about let’s say a Torah scroll purchased for 100 from the source (someone possibly unaware of its value, especially if in a ‘source’ country) and then sold for 200 and later evaluated 300 (after the ‘appraisal?’)? Is this maybe a Christian model of marketing I am unaware of? Of course, you might say this is how the market works, but what you are buying and selling are not apples, not even apartments. These are highly meaningful artefacts not only for your mostly Christian clients, but also for the world more in general since they are testimonies of our collective history, and in some cases of tragic events as Scott Carroll reminds us through his speeches.
      I personally doubt that your model would be the better way to help preserving and bringing our cultural heritage to new life; besides this, the methods of Scott Carroll and your client Josh McDowell leave me just speechless at least regarding mummy masks, misdated papyri and all the nonsense about lost Gospels.
      Everyone is free to have different ethical standards, I truly am for freedom: but at the same time I’ll continue moving doubts and saying openly that this kind of economy surrounding antiquities causes me a lot of ethical troubles. I can understand, however, that not only you and your collaborators, but even other scholars (young scholars like the Cambridge student) may have different views on the matter.
      Again, you’re more than welcome here!
      P.S. May I have Scott Carroll email or phone number??? As everybody knows here, I am dying for meeting him in person…

    • Thank you for reading the post, I must say I disagree on this. I believe that it is wrong to cast judgements on a whole category of people. I agree, however, on the fact that some of them definitely behaved in total disrespect for ancient artefacts and culture and are spreading false information on biblical writings, which is astonishing. In this group I will certainly include Josh Mcdowell. I also found the behaviour of scholars close to evangelical Christianity, like Craig Evans, completely unprofessional.

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