Green papyri: Egypt steps in

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The Galatians Coptic fragment when advertised on eBay, screen shot from Brice Jones’ blog post

An article published today on the Times reports that “Egypt is investigating the possible illegal acquisition of national artefacts by an American craft store company, including a 5th-century fragment of the Bible that was displayed at the Vatican.” The craft store company is Hobby Lobby.

Readers of the blog know about my doubts on the provenance of that papyrus; at present the only documented information on it is that it was put on sale on eBay in October 2012, and later surfaced in the Green collection.

According to the article, David Trobisch, director of collections of the Museum of the Bible, “said the fragment came from the David Robinson collection sold through Christie’s in 2011 and then acquired by the museum through a trusted dealer. There was no photographic record of the 2011 sale, he said. ‘We are sharing what was told to us.’.” So the papyrus is one of the items which Hobby Lobby’s owners, the Green family, gifted to the Museum.

From the statement we may infer that papyri are sold by Christie’s without any precise record (I wonder how collectors might be able to exercise due diligence without such basic documentation…). The trusted dealer that might be able to clarify how a papyrus went from a Christie’s auction of 2011 to a Turkish dealer (mixantik aka ebuyerrrr) operating from Turkey in 2012 is still hiding somewhere. Why a trusted dealer cannot be named at this point is one more mystery of the amazing world of the antiquities market I will never be able to decipher.

The provenance for the ca. 1,000 papyrus fragments and the other Egyptian objects in the collection is an information we have asked for since 2014. Unsuccessfully, since I am still blogging about it…

The Green collection and the Museum of the Bible: 443,000 square meters of mess

One of the tablets confiscated by US customs. Source: the United States Department of Justice.

Readers who have followed my blog could have imagined my reaction to last week’s press release concerning the civil forfeiture complaint filed by the United States attorney’s office of New York Eastern District. I am not surprised. Along with other people, I have been raising concerns about the Green collection’s acquisition methods and unprofessional habits since the beginning of 2014. It was then that I first learned about its existence as it came out that they were connected to the discovery of new Sappho papyrus fragments. These fragments are now housed by an anonymous London collector and the Green collection: we still haven’t had access to any of the documents proving that they come from a lot sold through a Christie’s auction in November 2011. Their provenance rests on the word of the current director of the collection and some Green or ex-Green scholars. I have argued that is not enough information for papyri that have only recently emerged from the market, and even more so in light of the serious facts that have transpired since the complaint was made public. Equally, we have not yet received any documents or images explaining how a Coptic papyrus fragment of Paul’s letter to the Galatians, sold through eBay in 2012 by a Turkish account, also – according to David Trobisch, current director of the Green collection – had in its acquisition history a provenance from the same Christie’s auction, and finally landed in Oklahoma City in 2013 (in brief: 2011 Christie’s London –> 2012 Turkish eBay account –> “trusted dealer” mentioned by Trobisch – > 2013 Green collection. Quite a ride). This Turkish eBay account (mixantik which later morphed into ebuyerrrr) was active again in Spring 2016, when I reported it to the eBay Europe which closed it in view of the dubious nature and provenances of the antiquities on sale and the expedition methods of this vendor. Obviously, I also filed an official report with the Art and Antiques Unit of the London Metropolitan Police.

We also don’t yet know the provenance of the Green mummy mask dismounted at Baylor University by Scott Carroll together with some Green scholars and students, while the Evangelical preacher Josh MacDowell was in attendance. In short, nobody knows anything about the acquisition circumstances of the objects and manuscripts in the collection – some of which will be on display in the Washington Museum – except for an irrelevant percentage of famous pieces (e.g. the codex Climaci rescriptus and P.Oxy. 15 1780), and the now infamous over 3,500 objects identified by the feds for repatriation. We were promised an online catalogue but nothing has materialized.

Of course, academics who are working on the collection pieces do know the acquisition circumstances of the artefacts to which they have been assigned, and I am expecting they will intervene on the topic soon. I personally appreciated some of the younger academics, who last year at the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature raised concerns on the provenance and genuine status of the Dead Sea scrolls’ fragments they had been assigned at the presentation of the volume of the Green collection fragments recently published by Brill. This volume does not contain any information on the fragments’ acquisition history. We are now waiting for the forthcoming papyri volume to see if publishing without provenance and acquisition circumstances is the standard for the Green collection and Brill series.

I am not going to comment here on the technical aspects of the prosecution, fines and settlements: I am not an expert in the law, and you can find excellent assessments online by Rick St. Hilaire and others. In short, what has happened is a very serious and sustained breach of national and international laws, not only related to cultural heritage protection, but also to custom regulations and other laws. Steve Green has admitted that the facts described in the complaint happened and a settlement was reached. Now it is the case to remind here that irresponsible collectors who do not check carefully the provenance of the antiquities they purchase contribute to foster a black market in the hands of criminals of various sorts as Italians know too well since the Mafia has grown rich through this business. In Egypt, looters are not only destroying cultural heritage sites and objects, but also killing people including children. In the case of Iraqi material terrorism might even be involved.

There are a few considerations which I’d like to share as an academic who studies and curates ancient documents.

To found a museum is an enterprise that must be carried out by properly trained experts in many different subjects, including cultural heritage managers and lawyers. What has happened with this collection/museum is exactly the opposite: the first director and counsellor of the Green collection could not boast this professional profile, and recommendations made by first-rate scholars like the one mentioned in the complaint who warned about purchasing antiquities from Iraq went totally ignored. We now know that the change of director in 2013/2014 and the recent issue of an acquisition policy (by the way, what about a publication policy in light of what we have seen so far?) probably came out as a consequence of the lawsuit, as the timeline shows. If this had not happened, things might have gone on and on.

There is too often the tendency to treat archaeology and similar subjects as fields in which everyone is entitled to comment on and even participate in. While I am a big fan of public engagement, I am in absolute disagreement with unsupervised work done by amateurs: would you ever allow an enthusiastic layperson in medicine to perform surgery in a hospital? I don’t believe so. What makes people think that anyone could handle cuneiform tablets, papyri and other antiquities on the basis of their enthusiasm? This is something that does not only concern Hobby Lobby, but also our society in general: in the UK, for instance, departments of archaeology are under threat of being shut down as they are considered irrelevant, and curators of manuscripts with postgraduate degrees are paid less than a secretary without a degree in London. This is to say nothing of the madness of metal-detectorists.

But to return to the Greens: it was clear since Scott Carroll’s beginnings that unskilled (to put it mildly) personnel were in charge of the Green Collection/Museum of the Bible. Scott Carroll has barely produced a PhD dissertation, which never became a monograph as is standard in academia, and seems to have never published a line in an academic journal in the field (if you can unearth one, please send me the reference SEE CORRECTION BELOW). This man, who currently is putting on one of his shows in Thailand, is still selling manuscripts of all sorts to Evangelical Christian colleges in the US. Actually, what he is doing is even more ingenious: he sells artefacts to wealthy evangelical Christians who then donate them to those colleges. Carroll earns money in the transaction; the donors receive tax-rebates, and the colleges are thrilled to own ancient artefacts, which I bet will be revealed as something different from whatever they are declared to be by Carroll, if not fakes. Incidentally, one of the last ones, now at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminar of Louisville KY, is said to come from Italy, from where an ancient Torah of that kind can hardly be exported. While Carroll, who later was fired or resigned (the versions don’t coincide), has certainly played a major role in this mess, it should be brougt in mind that many of those in key positions, who must have known something about what was going on (for instance Cary Summers and Jerry Pattengale), are still leading figures of the opening-soon Museum of the Bible.

Academics do not come across well in this story; there has been very little if any awareness of the questions involved in establishing a collection of antiquities of this sort. In recent years, I have had conversations with colleagues who joined the Green scholars initiative or engaged in other ways with the collection and the Museum: money was a recurrent theme. From minor universities in need of PhD and research funding to professors from top-ranked universities, everyone was in need of money: to collect as much money as possible is one of the tasks of the modern academic. (Even the Vatican hosted an exhibit of the collection in 2014 without posing many questions on the provenance of the artefacts: there was not a single label addressing the point and any information was noticeably absent from the catalogue.) There is also an obsession with producing research on exceptional items, with the aspiration of discovering a sensational-something in order to attract the media. As an academic myself, I am part of this circus: I believe it is time to set higher ethical and professional standards when accepting donations and establishing collaborations. I am worried about what has happened in terms of academic behaviours because the reasons behind these have more to do with the nature of academia as it is evolving in the last decades, rather than with the Green/Hobby Lobby mess. It is inevitable that the market-oriented model in the education and cultural sectors increases the perils involved when one forgets the ethical mission of the university, which is not business, as some seem to believe, but an education and research institution. Academics and institutions should ensure that research money and facilities are accepted only while adhering to high ethical and professional standards and holding them in the utmost respect. I am very sorry to say that it was clear since the beginning that there was tension regarding this point in the case of this collection: some simply were in denial about this.

To conclude: as you may imagine, I am not particularly worried about the future of the messy Museum of the Bible. Despite the efforts of the current management to set a distinction between the Green collection and the Museum of the Bible, I struggle at seeing one (unless the Museum will release a list of the artefacts in their ownership or on loan for exhibit with their full documented collection history). I am instead much more worried about the status of already existent cultural institutions in the current climate. You can already enjoy Biblical artefacts in many museums and libraries, even in Washington D.C. where the new museum will be located. Manuscripts and historical copies of the Bible are disseminated everywhere (come to Manchester and I’ll guide you throughout our riches): what is really needed is public and private money to take care of already existing collections and to educate the next generations of teachers, curators, archaeologists, papyrologists and so on. You might wonder why Steve Green didn’t fund already existent libraries and museums. Of course he is free to spend his money as he likes, as long as he and his crowd obey the laws of each and every country.

13 July 2017, CORRECTION: A reader of this blog has emailed me saying that Scott Carroll seems indeed to have published at least an academic articles and possibly a few more, see Carroll, Scott T. “The Apocalypse of Adam and Pre-Christian Gnosticism.” Vigiliae Christianae 44.3 (1990): 263–79. In some sense this is even more worrisome: in spite of his academic training, professional ethics went clearly missing.