The Evangelical Textual Criticism blog reports that P. Oxy. XV 1596 (aka P 28, one of the earliest testimonies of the Gospel of John) has been sold by Pacific School of Religion (Berkeley) to Mr Gifford Combs, managing director of Dalton Investments and renowned manuscript collector (see the short profile note added by G. Schwendner in What’s New in Papyrology). It was the new owner who emailed the information to the Institute for Textual Scholarship and Electronic Editing so that New Testament scholars would be aware of the new housing of the papyrus in his collection in Los Angeles.
Apparently the School decided to make some money (that is what the sanitized term “deaccession” means) not only from this papyrus, but also from the rest of its small collection, housed in the Badè Museum and including other seven Oxyrhynchus papyri (for a list click here). It is still unclear how and why this has happened and if the rest of the papyri are with Mr Combs or someone else. (I thank the director of the Museum, professor Aaron Brody, for the information and I am waiting for more details from the School’s Chief Financial Officer, Patrick O’Leary).
All the papyri in question come from Grenfell and Hunt’s expeditions supported by the Egypt Exploration Fund (today Egypt Exploration Society); they were legally granted to the Fund by the Egyptian government according to the partage system commonly used at that time. As many other papyri and objects, they were later transferred to the Fund’s American branch in recognition of the financial support provided to the campaigns and then distributed to the Pacific School of Religion. The distribution practice was in line with one of the Fund’s aims as established in its Memorandum, that “to make, maintain and exhibit illustrative collections of antiquities and other things relative to, or connected with, any of the objects of the Society, or to present any such antiquities or things to any public body, university, school, library, or other similar institutions.”
It is clear from these lines that the distributions of objects from the Fund’s excavations to cultural institutions were intended for the public to access Egyptian material evidence in order to encourage the study and general appreciation of Egyptian civilisation. There are no doubts on this. It seems to me that the sale of antiquities coming from the Egyptian Exploration Fund’s distributions to private collectors betrays the spirit of this important cultural initiative and goes against the legacy of which the Pacific School of Religion and others were supposed to be the custodians. As the current director of the Egypt Exploration Society, Chris Naunton, has reminded us few months ago, when the St. Louis Society – AIA put on sale the so-called Harageh treasure, to sell such objects to private collectors goes against the cultural mission at the basis of the distributions. Unless formal clauses on the maintenance of public access are taken, or the antiquities are sold to cultural institutions, these sales prevent scholars, students and the public from the opportunity to study or simply enjoy the objects. I would add that they also encourage the false and dangerous idea that antiquities could be treated as any other type of commodities freely exchanged on the market.