I have been doing some experiments with online shopping for antiquities recently. I must admit I do not like buying online. I love real, solid, heavy shopping in a selected number of places, where I like to go in person for the ritual and the chatting with retailers and customers. I dislike Amazon and co. cardboard; I prefer nice, handmade packaging. Yes, I am one of those women you see happily carrying shopping bags on the street: old fashioned, I know.
Anyway, I had to try the online thrill in order to understand how it works for a paper I am giving at the annual ARCA conference in Amelia soon. I thought I would give you some ideas about what I found, and a taste of the paper, in case you are not lucky enough to be in Amelia in June, which is a pity for you, I must say, because that is one of the loveliest towns in Umbria.
About one month ago Alin Suciu (Göttingen) sent Jenny Cromwell (Copenhagen) and me a link to the online catalogue for the sale of a Coptic papyrus by Auctionata, one of the many auction houses now operating on the web. Basically Auctionata works like traditional auction houses, but bidding takes place exclusively online. The firm seems big, and covers many types of objects, from antiquities to watches, paintings and other collectibles. They have two main offices, one in Berlin the other in New York, but also agents in other countries.
So on the one hand I asked Jenny Cromwell to give me a quick opinion on the fragment versus the online catalogue description due to her expertise on the monastic material, and on the other I started a conversation via email with the auction house.
I reproduce here the image and the catalogue description both still available through the sale result webpage (the piece was sold for € 1,200 on 20 April):
“The present piece is a letter, written on papyrus, originating from Western Thebes, ancient Egypt, dating to the 6th century AD. The papyrus letter is written in Coptic, the latest native form of the language of Egypt. Four lines can be read in contiguous writing in Sahidic, a dialect of the Coptic. On the edges further text lines remain. Therefore, it can be assumed that there used to be at least one more line above and below the present text. The text mentions Phoibamon (sic), a monk and founder of a monastery, who used to live in the monastery above the ruins of the Hatshepsut Temple in Deir el-Bahari (Western Thebes).
The letter is in a very well-preserved condition, considering its age. The main parts of the letter are missing, however, the parts that do remain are very well preserved. The papyrus displays frayed parts and it is partially folded. The corners are strongly frayed. Little fragments within the centre piece of the papyrus are missing. The original edge is only preserved on the left rim, however, strongly frayed. The letter is laid down on a beige textile matte in a dark green wooden frame with gold painted inner frame. The dimensions of the letter are 11.6 x 3 cm (width x height). The total dimensions, including the frame, are 15.3 x 20.8 cm.”
These are Jenny’s quick notes and comments:
“Beginning of four lines of text, with trace of another line at the top. End of last line preserves epistolary formulae (‘do the [love’ > ‘please’), suggesting this is a letter, which is preceded by at least four lines of text (only a trace of the first survives), including, e.g. the date to the beginning of the month Paremhotep, mention ‘of God on behalf of (?) Mena .[…]’.
The name Phoibammon survives at the beginning of line 4. However, there is nothing to support this as the monastery of Apa Phoibammon at Deir el-Bahri – there is too much lost text between this name and Mena at the end of the previous line. These could be two men.
Also, the description is erroneous in stating that Phoibammon was a monk and founder of a monastery: the monastery of Apa Phoibammon was founded by Apa Abraham, bishop of Hermonthis, at the end of the 6th century / beginning of the 7th. As such, a 6th century date is unlikely, if connected with Thebes. There is nothing here to support a Theban provenance (unless it was actually found there) — the tenuous mention of Phoibammon is insufficient.”
To sum up: the auction house’s expertise is based on a correct grasp on the contents of the fragment, but overstates the interpretation of the name Phoibammon, adding also incorrect information on the founding of the Monastery of Deir el-Bahri. Phoibammon and Menas are in fact two of the commonest male personal name in late antique Egypt. The dating is shaky at best: if it was based on a supposed provenance from the monastery in question, it is misleading because the monastery has a later foundation, as we have seen. As for palaeographical dating, this is a notoriously problematic field, especially for Coptic texts, and not a word is spent in the catalogue to clarify the basis for a supposed 6th century date. As Jenny has pointed out in a following conversation, the handwriting is elementary because the letter was written by an unskilled writer, and this makes it even more difficult to date.
Auctionata’s condition description is carefully crafted; it starts with a bold “The letter is in a very well-preserved condition, considering its age” but as curators and papyrologists know this is just a tiny scrappy fragment (11 x 3 cm); we have thousands and thousands of them stored in collections all over the world. Certainly this is an important piece of our past that must be preserved with care, but there is nothing special about it at all.
The way the auction house attempts to connect it with a famous Christian religious figure highlights how important the Christian manuscript market has become; not a new phenomenon, but certainly one that is increasing as the major enterprise of the Green family’s Museum of the Bible, and the new book and other enterprises of the Christian preacher Josh McDowell in the field of manuscript collecting (and mummy cartonnage dissolving…) demonstrate.
Let’s move on to report on my email conversation about provenance with Auctionata’s helpful and very kind personnel. The first answer to a direct question on the point was simply as follows:
“Lot 146 was part of the collection Bruno Wertz, a high class German private collection. All items of this collection have superb museum quality.”
I thanked them, and explained that what I was asking for was more precise information on documents proving that the papyrus left Egypt legally, or at least before 1972 (that a piece left Egypt before that date does not necessarily mean that it was legally exported, a point people tend easily to forget…). This was the prompt answer:
“We had the possibility to talk with our consignor regarding the documents and the provenance. Unfortunately I have to inform you that we do not have any documents. The Coptic Letter comes from the private collection of Bruno Wertz, who confirmed that the object was bought in the 1960s. Please be aware that we provide every single buyer with our Auctionata Guarantee for all items purchased through Auctionata. The Auctionata Guarantee will apply for a period of 25 years from time to (sic) handover of the purchased item.”
So I checked the guarantee available online; it covers the abovementioned period but provenance is not mentioned anywhere in the terms, or at least I was unable to find it. From the email it seemed that Mr Wertz had confirmed somewhere that he acquired the piece in the 1960s; therefore I asked for an affidavit from him or the present owner stating when and where the pieces were purchased. In fact it could be absolutely plausible that Mr Wertz legally bought a papyrus and other Egyptian antiquities (other pieces were in fact auctioned online recently) in the 1960s without taking care about provenance documents. I have talked with collectors and dealers in these months; as many academics, dealers and collectors too have started paying attention to provenance documents only recently, in most cases in absolute good faith, as a result of the increasing public awareness of the issues at stake, especially after the Unesco convention enforcement in 1972. Auctionata’s answer, however, was brief and depressing:
“We’ve contacted the consignor again, but unfortunately we won’t receive any documents about the provenance.”
The fact that no affidavit would be provided, and the only guarantee is that of Auctionata, which totally ignores the provenance aspect, does not look positive for a potential purchaser.
To conclude: Are you the one who bought the papyrus? Well I am sorry for you, but this was certainly not a good choice and investment.
You have a tiny and scrappy papyrus, written in a very bad handwriting, without a date, without the monk you thought to have and what is worse without documented provenance! If someone will claim the papyrus back one day or Egypt will ask for repatriation, the Auctionata guarantee will probably count for nothing, because provenance seems not to be mentioned among its clauses.
Honestly, far better to have invested those 1,200 euros in a holiday, a decent coat or bag, or – why not? – in a donation to a museum or a library, or else in finding a better papyrus in terms of conservation, contents and provenance, if you really wanted to hang one on the wall – which by the way you cannot do unless the glass is ultraviolet filtered and the room under constant humidity and temperature control. So why not go for a contemporary painting for your empty wall instead? I have a couple of names: nice stuff and a good investment too. Next time you have the impulse, just join me on my Saturday shopping trip and I’ll take control of the money; you won’t be disappointed…