Speaking of Prices: The Wyman Fragment

The Wyman fragment. Screenshot from the 2012 Sotheby's catalogue

The Wyman fragment. Screenshot from the 2012 Sotheby’s catalogue

On the 3rd of July 1950, Leland C. Wyman, a professor at Boston University, bought a small fragment of parchment with Greek writing on it in Cairo. According to the dealer, the fragment had been found by some local people in al-Fusṭāṭ, a story which might or might not be true as correctly noted by the first editor, W.H.P. Hatch.

The parchment, which has received different palaeographical dating ranging from the second half of the second century to the second half of the fourth century AD, bears some lines from Paul’s Romans chapters 4 and 5 attesting interesting variants. It is registered as 0220/20220 in the official list of New Testament manuscripts.

The Wyman fragment was sold through Sotheby’s, London twice: in 1988 by Wyman’s heirs and in 2012 by the 1988 purchaser, the Norwegian businessman and collector Martin Schøyen. At the first auction (21 June 1988, lot 47) the fragment had an estimate of £ 15.000-20.000, but reached the final price of £ 95.000. A similarly high increase was obtained at the 2012 auction, when from the estimate £ 150,000-200,000 the price went up to £ 301,250. The sum in this last case was paid by the Green family, who have later donated the manuscript to their Museum of the Bible.

So what does determine prices of ancient manuscripts these days? I am not entirely sure since as I said already in this blog and elsewhere the market (legal and illegal) is secretive by its own nature and we can collect only partial data on prices through publicly available auctions’ catalogues, or information that collectors and dealers are eventually happy to provide. Certainly those collectors who are opening public museums will be sharing price information; therefore I should add that in order to obtain a clearer picture of the economy surrounding world cultural heritage objects, it would be very helpful to add also appraisals to contrast and compare. We tend to forget that manuscripts and other antiquities are investment goods at the centre of interesting economic besides cultural enterprises that are worth studying.

In any case we may infer that prices are determined by a combination of factors, not necessarily in this order:

  1. The importance of a piece. In the case of the Wyman fragment its Christian content, the early – although debated as above mentioned, see e.g. W. Clarysse and P. Orsini recent re-dating to 350-400 AD – date and its rarity.
  2. Documented provenance. In this case pre-1972 purchase seems to be enough to make everybody happy. But legality on these questions is more a point of view than a firm subject since there was already Egyptian legislation on the antiquities market which was not always respected.
  3. The presence on the market of wealthy collectors as Martin Schøyen and the Green family/Museum of the Bible, who invest large sums of money on acquisitions for various reasons.
  4. Finally, marketing i.e. the way dealers and auction houses pack the merchandise they sell. In this specific case it was an easy job, in view of the contents and features of the fragment and the academic literature produced on it.
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5 thoughts on “Speaking of Prices: The Wyman Fragment

  1. Pingback: Collectability, then and now | Francesca Tronchin

  2. Has anyone put together a database of manuscripts sold, their characteristics and prices? The determinants of the price might indeed make an interesting research project!

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